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Saša Stanišić
Writing against disappearance

Saša Stanišić
Saša Stanišić | Photo (detail): © Katja Sämann

Saša Stanišić, who grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Germany, writes regional novels of an unusual kind. His novel “Vor dem Fest” was awarded the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair 2014.

One can imagine Saša Stanišić on the one hand as a somewhat shy and uncommonly polite man, or on the other hand as an undisguisedly open and curious one. And all these qualities have something to do with his biography and his writing. For without the will and the ability to tell stories, to interest himself in the worries, needs, ideas and quirks of others, Stanišić would never have made a name for himself in Germany. A country whose language he has mastered in a highly original fashion. Nor would he have managed to write two novels that stand out from the books of his generation. They are saturated with experience, and a style that does justice to this experience.

Fairy-tale-like tone

Stanišić, born in 1978 in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, was fourteen years old when his parents, his mother a Bosniak and his father a Serb, fled the civil war for Heidelberg, where an uncle already lived. Stanišić attended an international school and had the luck of meeting a German teacher who recognized and fostered his artistic talent. In 2006 he published his debut novel, Wie der Soldat das Grammofon reparierte (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone), a book that plainly drew on a trove of autobiographical experiences of war, flight and new beginnings. It nevertheless contains a high degree of fictionalization. The young first-person narrator is called Aleksandar, who tells of his family in a tone of voice borrowed from the world of fairy tales – of food, smells and the feeling of security of a boy growing up. There is the sense of belonging and well-being characteristic of good times, which is then destroyed by the death of the boy’s grandfather and the disintegration of the multi-ethnic state. A crack runs through the novel, the crack of a childhood torn apart by the windings of history.

It is at first glance a surprising turn, but on second glance a logical one, that Stanišić’s second novel works on mending this rift, not geographically but thematically. The author tells of how the idea for Vor dem Fest (Before the Party) came to him: it was on a visit to the cemetery in a small village near his hometown of Višegrad. On nearly every gravestone, says Stanišić, stood his family name. He became suddenly aware that the stories of this village would soon be extinct. It is this knowledge that formed the core of the new novel: Vor dem Fest is a book that, like his debut novel, struggles against disappearance. And it is again a regional novel – a novel about Stanišić’s new homeland: a book about Germany. Stanišić is cherished by readers and literary critics: his first novel was already honoured with several awards and nominated for the short list of the German Book Prize. Wie der Soldat das Grammofon reparierte has now been translated into more than 30 languages. And Vor dem Fest has also been awarded the Alfred Döblin Prize and the 2014 Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair.

A feast of storytelling

Vor dem Fest takes place in Fürstenfelde, a village in the slowly depopulating vastness of the Uckermark: the young are moving away; the old are dying away. Yet before it is finally all over, there are still some thing to do; for instance, to celebrate the Annenfest. It has been celebrated for centuries: “Nobody really knows what we are celebrating. It’s no anniversary, nothing ended and nothing began precisely on this day. Maybe we’re simply celebrating that all this exists: Fürstenfelde. And what we tell ourselves about it.” In telling the story, Stanišić develops an incredible brilliance: he is no ironic-detached scoffer, but scene-for-scene an exceptionally gifted comedian. And he honours his characters with an unconditional fellow-feeling. He takes them seriously, but he describes them with humour. This is rare.

It is a dance that is being performed here, a series of short stage pieces placed into inner connection. In this, Vor dem Fest is almost a bit reminiscent of Ingo Schulze’s Simple Storys. What Stanišić presents in this temporally quite restricted compass (the novel takes place in the space of twenty-four hours and during the Annenfest) is an historical deep-drilling reaching from the sixteenth century to the present, but also a very specific stocktaking of East German sensitivities: a disclosure of mentalities in an age after ideologies – with the exception of capitalism, which has swallowed everything else. In Stanišić’s world, man, animals and landscape are all bound together and on equal footing with one another in a universal poetic aspiration.

Vor dem Fest lives from bold ideas. These must be brought together. And this is done thanks to an unusual narrative approach: the “we” that speaks here is the collective voice of a landscape. In his afterword, the author thanks the people of Fürstenberg, Fürstenfelde, Fürstenwalde, Fürstenwerder and Prenzlau, and the respective local museums and local history clubs, for their support. Stanišić has spent time there, has brought people to speak with him through his amiableness. And out of this he has made a great novel.