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)

Götz and Meyer, by David Albahari

Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer is a long stream of conscious meditation on history and historiography. In this novella, we visit the mind of an unnamed Holocaust survivor living in Belgrade. This survivor hid with his mother during the war, so he did not have direct experience with the worst of what happened to most of his extended family. Consequently, the narrator is obsessed with learning about the eponymous Götz and Meyer. Götz and Meyer were the SS soldiers responsible for killing most of the narrator’s relatives between 1941 and 1943.

Götz and Meyer begins in a straightforward fashion. Our narrator combs through records at Belgrade’s Jewish Museum and bribes family members for names and memories. In his research, he comes across the names of Götz and Meyer. These two SS soldiers drove a truck that was fitted to redirect exhaust into a sealed compartment, poisoning anyone in that compartment with carbon monoxide. Sadly, but perhaps not surprising, our narrator is able to find more information about Götz and Meyer, statistics about the camp where his family were interned, and the carbon monoxide trucks than about his actual family members. This is the cruel thing about history. Documents are saved at the time because someone thought they were valuable or because of orders or because of pure chance. What historians and genealogists and researchers want later is based on purely on a capricious decision.

Over time, our narrator becomes untethered from his reality. His research has gotten to him. He often imagines what Götz and Meyer said or thought or did. Sometimes he even imagines that he is Götz or Meyer. Because he is a literature teacher, our narrator is used to using his imagination to fill in gaps. The problem is that he has no one to ground him in the real world.

Towards the end of the book, there is an extraordinary sequence in which our narrator takes his literature students on a field trip to the place where the concentration camp was, just outside of Belgrade. He assigns each student the name of a victim (much like the US Holocaust Museum does) and tells the students a story about what might have happened to one of his relatives. The trip is deeply affecting. The students completely succumb to the narrator’s story, weeping and gasping as the narrator tells them about what happened in the carbon monoxide trucks. To a large extent, the narrator succumbs, too.

Götz and Meyer investigates the great unknown about the Holocaust. Only survivors knew what it was like to be in the camps. Everything the rest of us know comes from documents, interviews, films, and other secondhand sources. We can never know what it was like, but we keep coming back to the question because we want to understand the greatest crime in human history. Götz and Meyer explores this question in a unique and disconcerting manner. The stream of conscious style works extremely well to convey the deep emotional upset and compulsion to study the Holocaust some of us have. I’ve never read anything like Götz and Meyer. And I kind of hope I never do again. This book makes emotional distance impossible.