In the spring of 1992 around 2000 people were massacred in the picturesque town of Višegrad in eastern Bosnia Herzegovina. Many of the bodies were taken to the historic Turkish bridge and dumped into waters of the river Drina.
This book explores the memories of a young boy whose simple happy childhood is turned upside down by the Bosnian war. The early chapters offer a quirky child’s-eye view of life in Tito’s Yugoslavia. There is a magical realist quality to his entertaining anecdotes about life in Višegrad, but as even as war draws closer, the reader remains blissfully unaware of the impending horrors. Watching many of the townsfolk fleeing in their overloaded Yugo’s, Alex and his friend watch from the roadside with amused fascination.
When war arrives in Višegrad the tone of the book shifts. It is a time “when only lunatics thought of being lighthearted” and even the narrator’s febrile imagination cannot lighten the reality around him. His family escape to Germany, and numbed by war, much of the rest of the book is an attempt to understand and recapture the past.
The structure of the book is like the narrator’s unreliable memories: a chaotic jumble of fragmented stories and vignettes. Whilst at times, powerful, the loss of narrative thread and the use of repetition make the book difficult to read. It is however worth the effort.
Ultimately, this book is a story of loss. The loss of innocence, the loss of people and places once loved, the loss of identity that results from exile. It is about the irrevocability of change brought by war and how once “war comes to a party” nothing can be reversed. Indeed; in this story “no drowned man comes up again asking for a towel, no love is found again…no bullet shoots out of a neck and back into a gun.”
As they flee Bosnia, Alexander promises his parents “not to ask any more questions for the next ten years”. But those unasked questions run just beneath the surface of the book. The gramophone of the title cannot be fixed by the soldier, and like the gramophone, Alex is permanently damaged by war. He becomes stuck like a gramophone on the same unanswerable question: “Why?”