Feature: ‘Borders’

Saša Stanišić: A Crosser of Borders

By Katy Derbyshire

Author Saša Stanišić Photo: Katja Sämann
I am supposed to write an article about Saša Stanišić, about his rise to fame and his work and what I love about it. But there’s an elephant in the room and that is that the article is for an issue on the subject of ‘borders’. And Saša Stanišić has indeed crossed a few borders in his time.

At this summer’s Ingeborg Bachmann literary competition in Austria, previous winner Maja Haderlap talked about writers who have more than one language and the way they are discussed. She concluded:

What counts in the end, writes Michael Hamburger, whose native language was German and who wrote in English, is not the way we are classified or labelled, least of all by ourselves, but how we deal with our identities. When it comes to literature, he was against any categorisation of writers by external biographical factors instead of by terms resulting from the nature of their work. I can only agree; that would finally replace the current focus on the biographies of exophonic writers with their literary work – because that, the written word, is what counts.

So let me get it over with, that apparently essential categorisation in this context, and then move on. Saša Stanišić was born in Višegrad, Bosnia, in 1978 and came to Germany in 1992, when new borders were being drawn up by violent means. His 2006 debut novel was a hit around the world: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (tr. Anthea Bell) was set during the civil war in Bosnia and was translated into twentyseven languages. After being feted by the literary establishment for his charming and yet horrifying book, Stanišić went on to Graz, Austria, as writer in residence.

I did all sorts of things in the eight years after the Soldier. I spent three years travelling a lot. I thought, Saša, you’re just going to be selfish now and go out and see the world. I was on the road almost all the time, either with the book or without the book.

That travel took him across more borders from Brazil to India, a time spent looking at architecture, talking to people, learning about places. It included longer stays in New York City, Iowa City (IWP), Boston (MIT) and Langenthal, Switzerland. While in Iowa, he sat down and thought about what’s called ‘immigrant writing’, for a piece published, appropriately enough, in Words Without Borders:

I’m always keen on reading the second or third book from an immigrant author – the one coming after he has told his exile-story. I find it more provocative to witness how someone from one cultural sphere sees his new environment without focusing on the ‘new’. It is worth every effort to tell an everyday story in the voice of a local German clerk, a love story without the exotic flair of an intercultural embrace, or to tell of a war not being fought in the country from which the author fled.

And that idea, it seems, has been put into practice in his own second book, Vor dem Fest. Set in a fictional Brandenburg village, the novel is a composite of stories based on historical and presentday research that really shows off Stanišić’s talent. It prompted both fulsome praise and criticism, with one fellow writer suggesting he had chosen the subject matter in an attempt to fit in. If anything, I would say, Stanišić was doing the exact opposite – going against the expectation that writers born outside the German language can and should write only about the immigrant experience, a narrative with which we’re now very familiar in both English and German. He was crossing a mental border, if that’s not stretching the point a little too far.

Thankfully, Vor dem Fest is not the kind of novel one reads to salve one’s multicultural conscience. Rightly rewarded as the big book of the spring season with the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair, it is an absolute pleasure, a celebration of odd characters and rituals. Like all Stanišić’s writing, it revels in the quirks of language too, with its strange narration in the ‘we’ form, two characters who speak in rhyme, and fake historical documents. Perhaps that’s one of the things I love most about his work – the way you can tell how much joy he gets out of words and writing. As I work on this piece, I’m exchanging emails with Saša, fact-checking. He’s on a train on his way to one of his extremely enjoyable readings, this time in Saarbrücken – on another border – and he tells me he’s just passed a place called Bierbach; literally meaning a stream made of beer. He’d like to make a beer joke, he writes, but he can’t think of one; he’s just glad to know such a name exists.

‘A language is the only country without borders,’ he wrote in his 2008 WWB piece. ‘How naďve I was,’ he says now. But I enjoy just that kind of celebratory statement, and I think there’s still more than a trace of that enthusiastic young man in his more recent work. Let’s join him in that country without borders, a utopia made of words.

Katy Derbyshire Photo: Anja Pietsch
Katy Derbyshire comes from London and lives in Berlin. She has translated a number of contemporary German-language writers, including Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Simon Urban and Dorothee Elmiger. She also blogs at Love German Books.
Vor dem Fest by Saša Stanišić will be published in English translation by Pushkin Press.