At the heart of Saša Stanišic's debut novel lies the real massacre of Muslim Bosniaks by their Serbian neighbours in the Bosnian town of Višegrad in 1992. The events are refracted through the eyes of the adolescent narrator Aleksandar Krsmanovic. Aleksandar wants to become as good a storyteller as his paternal grandfather Slavko by taking his grandfather's advice to "imagine the world better than it is". Using this child's perspective, Stanisic takes his readers on a tremendously imaginative journey through Aleksandar's childhood, as Tito's Communist dream finally turns to ash, though his adolescence, as ethnic tensions start to build, to his young adulthood, returning from exile in Germany to compare his memories to reality.
Slavko's death at the start of the novel is the young Aleksandar's first opportunity to flex his imaginative muscles, with an attempt to magic his grandfather back to life using the magician's hat and wand his grandfather had given him. But in spite of his childish belief in his powers, and in his grandfather's belief in him, this is Aleksandar's first taste of the futility of the imagination in the face of incontrovertible reality.
Aleksandar tries so hard to imagine a better world, in which his beloved river Drina can speak and his neighbours and relatives' stories co-mingle with his own like the Drina's tributaries joining her waters. His repeated desire to magically alter reality - "If I were a magician who could make things possible..." - becomes a moving reminder of how nothing can undo the events that overtook his life. Because just like the river, and just life life, his stories must move relentlessly forward.
At the emotional heart of the story is Aleksandar's protection of a Muslim girl with the "wrong" name. He and the girl, Asija, are playing together in Aleksandar's apartment building even though the building's overrun with Serbian soldiers, a brief reminder of how childhood continues even in the face of the horrors of war. When a soldier asks him their names he has a moment of clarity, when he clearly sees the power of names, of words, to alter the course of events, and protects this girl with a life. The fate of this girl - he never even found out her surname - haunts him even after he's fled to Germany with his family. From exile, he writes her letters that convey his dislocation and his desire to find out her story, what did her future hold?
The fabulous language jars with the brutal events at the novel's core but it also gives the novel its power. The fractured, anecdotal nature of the story heightens the horror Aleksandar's gradual understanding of the violence bubbling up in his ethnically mixed town and family. By using a child's perspective to narrate real historical events Stanišic emphasises the tragic absurdity of constructs like religion and ethnicity, while bearing witness to the horrific events that ripped through southern Europe only 17 years ago. Such a perspective also puts this novel in a tradition of writers that have used such perspectives to tackle historical atrocities (I kept thinking of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, despite this book being worlds away both in time and style). I also have to commend Anthea Bell's translation from the German. It's so skillfully done that at no point did I find myself self-conscious of the translation.