Where You Come From, by Saša Stanišić

There are some people who you never want to ask where they are from unless you’re ready to sit down with them for hours, possibly over a coffee or tea, and listen to them spin out stories about not only where they come from, but also when and who they come from. Since I love a hot beverage and a story-spinner, I was happy to sit down (metaphorically) with Saša Stanišić as he tried to explain where/who/when he comes from in Where You Come From (expertly translated by Damion Searls).

Speaking strictly geographically, Saša Stanišić and his family are from Višegrad, in what is now the Republika Srpska (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Speaking temporally, the Stanišićs are from Yugoslavia. When civil and ethnic violence broke out when the country started to splinter in 1991, they fled to Germany. Speaking genealogically (I guess?), Stanišić comes from a sprawling family who live in Višegrad and the remote village of Oskoruša. A web of family stories and memories link them together: grandfathers who rafted the Drina, a great aunt who wanted to go into space, a grandmother who always called Stanišić a donkey. But Stanišić is also a refugee boy who grew into a man among many other refugees in Heidelburg. Where he lived, no one was from ’round here. All of this has given Stanišić a very reflective attitude and a semi-permanent sense of being an outsider.

It’s perhaps no surprise that Stanišić doesn’t tell his story in a straight line. He constantly jumps back and forth through time to give a complete answer to the question of where he comes from. This means we visit Yugoslavia in its last decade, a more peaceful Bosnia/Republika Srpska in the 2010s, with Germany in between. Perhaps the one constant in this work is Stanišić’s grandmother, Kristina, who was his link to the past even through her heart-breaking decline into dementia. So many things remind Stanišić of visiting his grandmother in Višegrad and Oskoruša. The more time I spent with this book, the more I started to see why. His grandmother, who weathered the horrific violence of the civil war, was a rock. Even after she started to show the signs of dementia, Kristina was stubborn about staying the same and living independently. She is also someone who appreciates a good story or a trip down memory lane.

Where You Come From is a strange ride, but one I grew to enjoy once I settled in with the Stanišić clan and the author’s penchant for time-traveling through his own life. Readers who like a non-linear autofictional narrative will enjoy this personal and family history.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A panorama of Višegrad and the Drina (Image via Wikicommons)

The Safe House, by Christophe Boltanski

34524403In The Safe House, Christophe Boltanski uses the house on rue de Grenelles, in Paris, as a memory palace to recount his family’s saga from just before the turn of the twentieth century through the 1960s. It’s billed as fiction, but it contains a lot of the Boltanskis’ actual history—making this a work of auto fiction as well as historical fiction. It’s impossible to sort out what’s what, given the family’s penchant for falsifying documents and rewriting memories. But unlike other autofictional books, I don’t mind not knowing. The members of the Boltanski family are all drawn in spot-on psychological portraits. They all have so many eccentricities and phobias that it are so interesting, I don’t care if they’re not real.

Christophe the Narrator tells his story as a tour through the ancestral home. He begins with the car that his grandmother modified so that she could drive without the use of her legs, before taking us to the kitchen, his grandfather’s office and examining room, the parlors, and then upstairs. In each room, he describes the furnishings and decor before moving on to a family story. Christophe the Narrator goes back through four generations of oddness to find out why his family is the way it is

As far as Christophe the Narrator can tell, his great-grandparents came from Odessa after one of the many outbreaks of violent anti-Semitism in the city. The deceptions begin with that generation, as his great-grandmother invents (maybe) a background with a higher class family and a completely different name. The official documents (what remains of them) tell a different story. Christophe the Narrator doesn’t fret too much about the actual history. Fortunately for us, he relies on his memories and the stories he’s gotten from his uncles. Most of The Safe House centers on Étienne Boltanski and his wife, Marie-Élise. Étienne is French, though his parents are Russian Jews. Marie-Élise is a scion of an aristocratic French Catholic family in severe decline.

As we move through the rue de Grenelles house, we see the pair weather World War I, polio, and the efforts of the Nazis and the Vichy government to exterminate Jewish people. Marie-Élise’s efforts to save her husband from the Nazis and the collaborators are the pinnacle of a fascinating family history. I wasn’t sure about this book at the beginning. Its unusual structure put me off until I got a handle on what Christophe the Author was doing. Then, the more I read, the more I enjoyed this family’s foibles, myths, and moments of heroism. This strange novel is brilliant.

Deviation, by Luce d’Eramo

38122394As I read Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (translated by Anne Milano Appel), I had the image of a moth fluttering around a bug zapper constantly in my head. Lucia, the protagonist of this book—which I can only describe as autofiction—resembles nothing so much as a moth furiously and irrationally trying to kill itself. Lucia volunteers to work as a laborer for the Nazis in Germany to get a better look at the Arbeitslager and konzentrationslager because she believes that they can’t be as bad as the rumors make out. As if this wasn’t enough of a deviation, Lucia makes decision after decision that puts her straight back into harm’s way. In this reflective book, d’Eramo uses fiction to explore her decisions, the consequences of those decisions, and her lost memories. Fiction that hews closely to autobiography (or vice versa) seems the best way for her to try and understand her actions.

D’Eramo’s book is a collection of stories that closely resembles what happened to her in 1944-1945 and 1960. Deviation opens with an escape, when Lucia makes her way from the Arbeitslager at Dachau to a Durchgangslager where deportees and laborers live while they perform impressed work for the Nazis and Germans. (Lucia was never interned with Jewish people or any inmates in the death camps. Also, I’m not sure what the right words are to describe the laborers. Some of them are volunteers, but most of them seem to be drifters who got caught by the Nazis.) Lucia has, by this point, learned the ins and outs of camp life. She also has a knack for making the right friends, friends who will steal food and supplies for her. Futher, Lucia knows that, if things get really bad, she can always pull her rip cord: her parents connections to the well-heeled fascists of Italy. In spite of herself, Lucia lands on her feet in the Durchgangslager.

From the first story, d’Eramo takes us back and forth from the events of 1944. We see her running away from an attempt at repatriation to Italy. We see her helping rescue people in Frankfurt after a bombing—only to be crushed under a collapsing wall, an injury that leaves her legs paralyzed. We also see her striving mightily to escape a pernicious suitor after her injury, fluttering from tenuous situation to tenuous situation, with no though to anything except getting a little further away.

Lucia’s behavior is very confusing, even after d’Eramo spends pages looking back in an attempt to understand her younger self. The last “story” is full of thoughts about how she recovered memories only decades later and why she repressed those memories. D’Eramo/Lucia’s theory is that she suppressed and deliberately hid things in the earlier stories because it took her that long to realize that she wasn’t a hero for volunteering for her fact-finding mission. D’Eramo/Lucia retold a less complicated version of her life so many times that it became real, at least until the real memories started to resurface.


Luce d’Eramo in 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Deviation puzzles me greatly. If it wasn’t so obviously modeled on the author’s own life, I would have found it a particularly audacious and worrying piece of fiction. Because it is autofiction, it offers a unique look at the Holocaust—even if it leaves me with more questions than it answers. In spite of my continued confusion about the book, I want to complement Appel, the translator, for her very capable job of transforming d’Eramo’s text into coherent English. There are parts of the book that drag, but I chalk that up to d’Eramo’s maundering.

I’ll leave it to other readers to think about d’Eramo/Lucia’s epiphanies and revelations. I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced by d’Eramo/Lucia. I don’t think the narrator is either. The last story of the book, I think, betrays the narrator’s own bewilderment towards her actions. Lucia’s behavior is so irrational that calm reflection decades later doesn’t seem capable of answering the central question of why Lucia volunteered for an Arbeitslager.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be received 18 September 2018.