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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Where You Come From

Saša Stanišić

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To purchase Where You Come From

Title: Where You Come From
Author: Saša Stanišić
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 357 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Where You Come From - US
Where You Come From - UK
Where You Come From - Canada
Origines - France
Herkunft - Deutschland
Origini - Italia
Los orígenes - España

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing style; creative variation of the migrant-tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 3/12/2021 Matthew Janney
The Guardian . 9/11/2021 Stuart Evers
Le Monde . 26/2/2021 Nicolas Weill
New Statesman . 12/1/2022 Elliot Hoste
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/1/2022 Irina Dumitrescu
TLS . 17/12/2021 Alexander Leissle
Die Welt . 16/3/2019 Richard Kämmerlings
Die Zeit . 14/3/2019 Ijoma Mangold

  From the Reviews:
  • "(P)lot as a reliable tool to describe events is frequently undermined in this autobiographical novel. For Where You Come From -- which won the 2019 German Book Prize -- is really about the splintering of a single family and the troubled search for restitution through narrative. (...) Writing about their shared trauma won’t put his family back together. But it also won’t stop him trying. (...) Stanisic’s fragmented style effectively mirrors the book’s subject matter. Knowledge is gained piecemeal, drip-fed through Stanisic’s kaleidoscopic prose. He recounts anecdotes, memories and biographical details in simple, matter-of-fact sentences. Sometimes he resorts to lists, WhatsApp conversations, passing observations in the way that memory, too, unfolds in disconnected images and incomplete narratives." - Matthew Janney, Financial Times

  • "The fallibility of memory is a well-worn trope, but Stanišić’s understanding of how memory can affect the contours of the present is consistently surprising. For all the hatred that stirred the Bosnian war, the overwhelming, sometimes overheated, sense in Where You Come From is love: a kinship and communion that yolks entire generations. Characters always seem to be on their best behaviour and this can lead to the novel feeling sentimental at times, a touch ignorant of the dirt under the characters’ fingernails. If there are antagonists here, they are memory and time: two faceless enemies these characters cannot outrun. The book’s conclusion, though, is a bravura, sustained and singular piece of writing that bursts with wit, heart and empathy." - Stuart Evers, The Guardian

  • "The book is most powerful in its gentle undoing of what learning a new dialect might seem (a simple memory game) and what it really becomes (a set of codes and customs)." - Elliot Hoste, New Statesman

  • "For Stanisic, as with many refugees, there is no simple way to tell the story of one’s origins. (...) Rather than trying to weave these stories into a coherent account, Stanisic jumbles genres to reflect how compromised memory is. Where You Come From has its share of quirky, half-true anecdotes of the kind one expects from a memoir. (...) Stanisic’s lightness only makes tragedy more devastating when it comes. (...) Damion Searls’s translation does justice to Stanisic’s dry wit and linguistic playfulness, and captures the tense undercurrents building throughout the book. Though shot through with trauma, Where You Come From is also funny and moving" - Irina Dumitrescu, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Here, the author hews closer to his own experience. The result is all the more moving -- and imaginative -- for it. The narrative is defiantly non-linear, and Stanišić’s personal memories often merge with familial ones. (...) Some readers may find these techniques a little trite, but it makes sense in the context of the novel’s broader themes. Damion Searls’s translation holds up well, and admirably retains the humour and agility of Stanišić’s prose. Saša Stanišić is acutely aware of fiction’s role in the construction of self and memory. He veers between suspicion of it, acceptance and trust." - Alexander Leissle, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Herkunft verbindet verschiedene Stränge in einer fragmentarischen, kreisenden, chronologisch sprunghaften Erzählbewegung: die Familiengeschichte, die Rekonstruktion des untergegangenen Vielvölkerstaats Jugoslawien, der nicht nur in der Kinderperspektive mit den traumatischen Bildern von Krieg und Völkermord kontrastiert; schließlich die Erinnerung an die Ankunft in Deutschland, den migrantischen Bildungsroman, der aus den kalten frühen 90ern bis in die Gegenwart führt: Europaweit kehrt ein Denken in Kategorien von Eigenem und Fremdem wieder, das fatal an die Tragödie auf dem Balkan erinnert. Dass ein Buch wichtig sei, sagt sich leicht, dieses ist, gerade heute, gerade hier, von großer Bedeutung." - Richard Kämmerlings, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Where You Come From is billed as a novel (and won the German Book Prize, which is a prize for the best German novel) but its narrator's name is 'Saša Stanišić' and he shares the author's birth-date and place and, it would appear, life-experiences -- so, yes, there are no pretenses here: this 'novel' is about as auto- as autofiction gets.
       Stanišić was born in 1978, in Yugoslavia, a country that "no longer exists", as he reminds readers several times. He and his mother fled their hometown of Višegrad in 1992, settling in Germany; with Stanišić's father later joining them. While Stanišić then remained in Germany to pursue his studies at university (and become a writer), his parents were forced to leave the country in 1998; "To avoid having to go back to ethnically cleansed Višegrad, they emigrated to Florida".
       The German title of the novel is Herkunft, and it is this 'where one comes from' (and where home -- or, as the broader German term has it, Heimat -- is) that Stanišić explores here. In punchy, short chapters he shifts back and forth between scenes from pasts and the present-day (2018) in which he is writing. One prompt is his grandmother, whose mind, in 2018, is going, increasingly remembering the world only as it was rather than as it is; at the beginning already:: "Grandmother is eighty-seven years old and eleven years old". And, as Stanišić explains:

     Grandmothers are home. When Grandmother Kristina started losing her memory, I started collecting memories.
       Indeed, Where You Come From is a sort of album-novel, of short but often striking (even if often only in small ways) reminiscences -- episodes from and slices of past life -- rather than photographs.
       Already back in then-Yugoslavia, young Stanišić had been a great reader -- and he describes:
     A mountain of books. In 1991 I'd discovered a new genre: Choose Your Own Adventure. You as the reader decide for yourself how the story continues
       And he describes his own attempts then, to capture everything he wants here:
     I'll take more stabs at it and find a lot more endings. I know how I work. My stories just wouldn't be mine without digressions. Digression is my mode of writing. My Own Adventure.
       And so Where You Come From unfolds, digressively -- down to its conclusion, as the last fifty or so pages are presented as a 'create your own adventure'-type book, with the reader thrust into the role of protagonist ("You are me") but (supposedly) having some control over how the story unfolds, by deciding how to read it, as it were (the instructions beginning with the exhortation: "Do not read this book in order !").
       Where You Come From is about loss -- the loss of homeland, family, memory -- and what one can cling to. With the next big loss looming, the novel comes to focus more on the grandmother, fading with dementia. And, from early on, Stanišić makes clear just how hard it is too hold onto the specifics of past -- finding, for example, also that you can't really go home again:
       In 1996, during my first visit to Višegrad after the war, the city was full and desperate, aggressive and unemployed. I wasn't coming back, I was coming to a new place for the first time.
       Stanišić describes the migrant/refugee experience, especially his teenage years and the extent to which he adapted and fit in, or didn't. He picks up German quickly but, as he nicely puts it: "The new language is easy enough to pick up, but its very hard to carry anything in it". Amusingly, when applying for his German residence permit, he already is determined to be a writer -- convincing a case worker handling his case, even as she pointed out that it was: "practically impossible for freelance artists -- especially (a) writers and (b) clowns -- to make an uninterrupted and sustainable living". His residence permit then limited him to employment: "as a writer and related activity" -- but he seemed pleased by the fact that: "I wasn't allowed to have any other job" (and obviously this worked out well enough for him).
       Stanišić does describe being a stranger in a strange land, but it's mostly little more than that general adolescent feeling; his parents had it harder, which he gives some sense of, but he navigated it reasonably easily enough -- in part also because of the school he attended, and where they lived, where foreign-ness did not make him a complete outsider, as many others shared similar backgrounds. There are the issues such as the complications caused by: "the check marks on our names" -- the diacritical marks in 'Saša Stanišić' -- but he doesn't harp too much on him and his family being treated differently, acknowledging some of the unpleasantness that came with it but not harping self-pityingly on it.
       The connection with the former Yugoslavia remains strong too, with many of the scenes set there, from childhood memories to post-war visits -- especially than as the grandmothers declines. The contrast of before and after is stark -- with story-telling-Stanišić also framing it in story-telling terms: "Tito proved irreplaceable as the central voice telling the story of Yugoslavian unity". But geographical place and physical homeland isn't what matters most to Stanišić; he recognizes: "Every place you live is accidental" and goes comfortably with the flow of that idea; the connections of origins, for him, are on a more fundamental, personal level -- above all else here in the figure of the grandmother. As he sums up:
Conformity was my rebellion. Not conformity to the expectations people in Germany had of how immigrants should be, but also not intentionally against it. My resistance was directed against the fetishization of where a person came from, against the specter of national identity. I was for belonging. Wherever people wanted me and I wanted to be.
       Certainly this laid-back, healthy attitude to ideas of 'national identity' is part of the appeal of Where You Come From.
       The migrant tale, and the story of the aging relative fading with dementia, have, of course, both been beaten far beyond death by now (as has this sort of autofictional approach ...), so Stanišić also tries to add a few new spins to these -- most notably then in the final section, the 'create your own adventure '-conclusion, suggesting that the reader has some influence over outcomes (even as, of course, they all have long been determined). It's an amusing idea -- which Stanišić has prepared the reader for, by mentioning his own fondness for the genre in his younger days -- and works quite well in bringing the novel to an end, clinging to the hopes of refusing to accept finality by providing the illusion of choice.
       Where You Come From is presented in a light, appealing style, with Stanišić admirably avoiding sinking into the ponderous or, for the most part, the maudlin. Yes, this is a novel in which the narrator throws out questions such as: "What kind of book is this ? Who is narrating ?", but thankfully he doesn't get too caught up in them and sticks mostly to less abstract reflection It's a decent variation of the migrant-experience-novel, with both nice and keen observations and scenes, all of it going down easily in a quick, solid read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 February 2022

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Where You Come From: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Saša Stanišić was born in 1978.

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© 2022 the complete review

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