Sitting in his family’s ancestral cemetery, Saša Stanišić ponders a snake in a sorb-apple tree. The town grows emptier each year, and soon it will be left only to the horned vipers to keep watch over the sheep. He thinks of the dragons said to make their homes in the peaks of the hills and mountains that crest above the high town. He thinks of the time his father killed a snake in their hen house, a story his father later denies. He thinks of his family whose graves he’s standing over, and the grandmother and relative that are with him. He thinks of his parents, refugees, and the lives they’ve found in the aftermath of the Bosnian War.
Stanišić explored the terrain of childhood and refugee life in his debut English novel, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone translated by Anthea Bell, but in his latest book, Where You Come From, translated by Damion Searls, Stanišić takes a much more intimate approach. Weaving autofiction, myth-making, and yes, even a little bit of choose-your-own-adventure, Stanišić paints a beautiful and fragmented picture of what it means to belong when your home and language have been lost to you.
In 1992, the young Stanišić and his mother fled to Germany from the Bosnian War. A few months later, his father joined them, bearing a new scar on his leg he hesitated to talk about. Nearly 20 years later, Stanišić returns to Oskoruša, where generations of the Stanišić family made their homes. He’s joined by his Grandmother Kristina, and his relative Gavrilo. They sit in the graveyard in Oskoruša, underneath the sorb-apple tree the region is named for, as the viper circles above. It’s on this backdrop that Where You Come From begins, but it’s not long before Stanišić continues leading us along, following the rich network of words and memories that make up his past.
The book is divided into many short chapters, bouncing between memories both earnest and imagined, loose thoughts and anecdotes, and some more metafictional prose all woven into a single tapestry. At times, Stanišić contradicts himself or calls attention to his own fantasy. There’s the early memory of his father killing a snake that got into the family’s hen house, but when asked via text, his father says, “I definitely did not. […] I’d remember that. I would have run away.” But while Stanišić and his mother fled the end of Yugoslavia, it was his father who stayed. In another section, Stanišić describes his father’s first job as a refugee in Germany doing industrial pipework, in pipes Stanišić describes as “so big he could stand up in them”. In the next paragraph, his father’s reply:
“Nonsense. It wasn’t like that in Schwarzheide. The pipes weren’t that big, and no one ever spent the night in them, and in general: ‘Just ask so you don’t have to make things up.’”
But it’s important that Stanišić is able to tell the story he needs to tell; to take control of the narrative after he’d had so much taken from him. Much of the book is spent in conversation with his grandmother Kristina, during the last lucid years of her life and into her life with dementia. On the phone with her, Kristina asks if she’s told him how she met his grandfather. He knows the story well, but asks her to recount it again. But this time, something is wrong.
“This time she is in the circle ‘with a man.’ She doesn’t say ‘Pero,’ or ‘Grandpa.’ A man steps on her foot. […] And it’s strange. I don’t want my grandmother to be dancing with some random man. I want it to be Grandfather stepping on her feet. I want her to be remembering dancing her first dance and exchanging her first words with her future husband.”
It’s not just for his sake, but for his grandmother’s and all the other Stanišićs as well. Stanišić is able to write with such aching beauty, to convey such rare intimacy in his lines. I tear up reading this section even now, among a few others in the book. His grandmother knows this as well. “‘You got that from Pero too,’ Grandmother says. ‘You’re both troublemakers with words.’”
There’s Oskoruša; both the name of sorb-apple tree itself, and the area it’s growing in. The horned viper, the poskok, said to spit venom into eyes and jump at throats, fitting as its name contains skok, jump. In school in Germany, Stanišić keeps a notebook for vocabulary as he learns German. A teacher brings in a newspaper article on a fascist attack on Vietnamese contract workers in a city called Rostock. He records words like aufgebracht, outraged; ersticken, suffocate; and Grundrecht, fundamental right.
Still, Stanišić finds some comfort in Germany. He makes friends with a number of refugee and immigrant kids, whose social lives revolve around the nearby gas station. He finds a girlfriend who complements him well. He excels at school, where he discovers his love of stories and begins to write. But not everyone is so lucky. He recounts the story of his friend Dedo, whose traumatic experience involving a tractor in a minefield left him isolated from his peers before being deported to Bosnia, at which point Stanišić loses contact with him.
However, Where You Come From is not stuck in the past; this trauma’s roots run deep, and couldn’t be contained there. Stanišić frequently jumps back to the end of the twenty-teens, as far right nationalism is on the rise in Europe once more. He decides to make a trip back to Oskoruša with his parents, mirroring the one described at the start of the book. The path up the mountain hasn’t gotten any easier. It’s a road filled with danger, where the wrong symbol on your license plate, wrong destination or name given to a passerby could lead to destruction. Stanišić describes an exchange between his father and a tire dealer, the ominous Serbian graffiti nearby, the line between help and harm seemingly determined by the tattoos on the men’s forearms.
Finally, Stanišić brings the reader into the storytelling. At several points throughout the book, he casts a metafictional eye at the narrative (“What kind of book is this? Who is narrating?” he asks at the start of one chapter), and occasionally slips into second person. But he takes it a step further in the book’s final section, after the epilogue. The book concludes with the Stanišić family taking Grandma Kristina to a care home, as her dementia worsens. In the book’s epilogue, Stanišić leaves his grandmother there, and heads for the airport, before changing his mind and racing back to the facility. The final section takes the form of a choose-your-own-adventure book, where the reader assumes the role of Stanišić, having just arrived back at the facility, to wish his grandmother a goodnight.
It may seem odd, closing a book with such trauma on a section as playful and experimental as this, and yet it feels completely fitting. Much of Where You Come From deals with Stanišić recalling and remaking the myth of the Stanišić family, and his life, and so it seems completely fitting to carry it beyond the present, all the threads spread in front of you, waiting to grasp at whichever strikes your fancy.
Where You Come From is a deeply beautiful book, painfully so at times, on the ties that bind us: home, family, story, language. He recounts triumphs and loss, myths made, myths forgotten, and myths in the making. More than one section made me tear up, and even more made me chuckle. It’s a rich tapestry whose embrace shows us a little more about the world, and a little more about ourselves. “I stand under the Tree of Knowledge, and the tree’s roots dig down into the grave of my great-grandparents, and up in the branches there is no snake hissing, no symbol left. There’s just flowers in the branches.”
Where You Come From
By Saša Stanišić
Tin House Books
Published December 07, 2021
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.