A few days ago, I finished How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, partially a coming-of-age tale that takes place in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia– specifically, in the town of Višegrad, which was the site of genocidal violence in 1992. The protagonist got out before the full-blown massacre occurred– but just barely, and the exhaustive realities of what happened linger around the edges and occasionally pierce through the padded zones of recollections of before and after, the haze of exile and its multiple forms of confusion and answerless limbo.
The debut novel from Saša Stanišić is peppered with striking moments of pretty much any emotional valence imaginable, and I’m eager to discover what the author has done since. But there’s one passage– although not one of those that hit me in the gut– that made me contemplate my own position in history, not-quite-evenly split as my life currently is between the eras Before and After Constant Connectivity.
Here we have Aleksandar remembering a great battle with a catfish, which boiled down to two men and a boy being given hell by a determined denizen of the River Drina, all ending up soaked and discombobulated, the fish the only one not guffawing with victory. But as Aleksandar tells his grandfather, he and his neighbors decided to release their worthy adversary back into the river.
So what did you keep of him? Grandpa asks.
I kept that day, I say, looking at him.*
I’m not sure many people could say the same thing these days, at least not in the same way. After all, set this scene in the present, and someone/s, maybe even the young fisherman himself, would naturally be getting photographic evidence of all the fun, with maybe a witness chiming in with commentary every few seconds on any variety of feeds, to give the world and posterity proof of just what crazy hijinks were transpiring right here, right now– until so much focus is concentrated on the documentation of the event that no one quite remembers experiencing those moments so precisely captured in sharable pixels. “What was it like, Grandpa?” the fisher might be asked one day down the line– and have to pause, or simply refer to all his digital images as a way of answering.
The scene triggered a sense of temporal dislocation I felt again last night, reading a scene in Smilla’s Sense of Snow in which our heroine finds a cassette tape, and upon listening to it, thinks she may hear the undertones of a previous track not quite erased. Suddenly I was thrown back to days of mix tapes and AM radio, with their hints of barely-messy mystery contained in those remnants of, in the case of the former, what may have been saved before the current track came along to replace it, and of the latter, voices from places and people you’d never heard of in your life, maybe speaking a language you had no idea you’d ever be faced with. There I was, a late-night teenage driver again, when I could get anything from a high-school football game in Ohio to Cajun deejays coming from a hut in rural Louisiana– and then transported to my first time outside the country, listening to AM radio at night in my attic room in Germany, spellbound by the Spanish and French and even Russian that would come through and make a scared sixteen-year-old forget the day’s linguistic humiliations and just revel in what had decided to float in that night and keep me company.
That variety of mystification doesn’t happen with precision streaming or podcasts. Sure, with those new ways of listening to the world, you can be surprised by an interesting story or the craft of the presenter– so it’s not as if the scheduled, up-front-about-what-you’re-downloading digital radioscape is without surprises. But the helter-skelter patterns of AM radio transmission (especially at night) sometimes evade logic or belief, and a voice from a beyond far, far away just dipping clear as a bell into local static one evening might by its very presence give you the creeps, or convince you that transcendence is somehow real.
I’m romanticizing, I know; nostalgia is always a danger for fallible mortals, and always has something of the insider’s sense of privilege about it, a prerogative I find revolting. But it’s a hard nut to crack, and a skill that I’d like to learn– namely, how to, as Aleksandar did, simply keep those days with us, hold them and be happy that they occurred, and be satisfied with that.
*Saša Stanišić, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, transl. Anthea Bell (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 157. Note my copy is an uncorrected proof– so page numbers might be off, compared to the final version.