The Box by Slavoljub Stanković : A Book Review

The Box could be described as the story of removal men, against the backdrop of a country on the verge of chaos.  But that would only scratch the surface, and probably wouldn’t encourage reading.  That would be a pity.  It would mean missing out on an enjoyable romp of a read, peppered with laugh-out-loud moments and some genuine insights into life in early nineties Belgrade.

For his debut novel, Slavoljub Stanković has chosen the metaphor of boxes, of packing things out of sight and out of mind, to explain the ways of the world and how people deal with things. 

Increasingly, our lives are compartmentalised, with what isn’t immediately required being boxed and shelved. It is a technique that works well to describe the stifling effect on ordinary people when a state becomes the world’s latest pariah.

Adapted from a screenplay by Andrijana Stojković (whose film version will premiere this Summer),this is an urban tale of Belgrade in the early nineties, when the humdrum hides the harsh realities on their doorstep.  It is about ‘ordinary people surviving in extraordinary times’, as the cover notes put it.

The Box conjures life with nostalgia, evoking a time when trade sanctions were looming, UEFA champions Red Star Belgrade could not host games at their hallowed home ground, and foreign ambassadors seemed to be changing guard at an alarming pace.

Of course, this is good for our team of removal men, packing the lives and wares of the Belgrade diplomatic corps, picking up tips and pocketing illicit knickknacks along the way. 

Our heroes: an aspiring rock musician, an ambitious student with overseas ideas, and a football fanatic. Young men at the top of their game, still flushed with the enthusiastic naiveté of youth.

But it is 1992 and they live in Belgrade, capital of a Yugoslavia that is increasingly vilified by the rest of the world, with a particularly dirty war erupting on their doorstep, and the lid of a country in its final death throes about to be slammed shut by sanctions.

Their prospects are not exactly peachy, but that rarely stymies the enthusiasm of young men, and this is where the tale takes off.

Student and grunge singer Cvrle is our host on this journey through life on the brink.  He is in the moving game to raise cash to record demos with his band, One Hit.   In Cvrle we see an grafter, the type who gets things done, makes do with what life throws as him.  He could represent the majority who had to get by as best they could under the yoke of sanctions.

Cvrle’s colleagues are chief packer Vladan, an engineering student, and teenage football fanatic Billy. Vladan plans to move to The Netherlands, if he can pass the final exam that keeps him safe from army call-up. Billy is not interested in studies. He is working to see his UEFA champions defend their title in Europe.

Through a series of easy-read episodes, or ‘boxes’, we watch these men go about their business of packing the Belgrade diplomatic corps, meeting a variety of colourful characters and enjoying some comedy moments along the way. 

But as work increases due to the exodus of diplomats, packing takes over their lives. Cvrle cancels recording sessions, Vladan gets behind in his studies, and Billy misses matches. Traveling the world within Belgrade, we are exposed to their struggles with a question that even today plagues so many young people in the Balkans – Should I stay or should I go?            

Slavoljub Stanković

While this first half of the book is enjoyable and filled with entertaining episodes and one-liners, at times it threatens to become repetitive as we see similar scenarios played out again and again. Thankfully creative scene-setting keeps it moving along. 

An important dimension elevating it above a literary sketch show is the interesting insight it delivers into life as a young man in Belgrade, unaware of being at a tipping point that will bring the region to its knees.

By inviting us to join a group of young men too engrossed in their own world and dreams to realise that bombs have started to fall, Slavoljub Stanković allows us to lift the veil of history and worry about the mundane.  Rather than hardships, it is the everyday that we live through with these young men.

There isn’t a sense of foreboding, even though we have the luxury of knowing that things will get worse before they get any better.  These men enjoy the naïvity of youth, like the first days of love, when all that can be seen is what matters to your life there and then.

The second half delivers the key plot driver.  As the world boxes them in, Cvrle, Vladan and Billy each fall victim in their own way:  Sanctions prevent Cvrle from sending a freshly recorded single to his hero Kurt Cobain;  Vladan can’t get a visa to The Netherlands; and Billy is prevented from traveling to Red Star matches. 

Getting the message loud and clear, the three plot to escape from the box into which they have become trapped.  On their biggest job yet, packing for the American ambassador and his wife, a desperate plan is forged to get out while they still can.  

What follows is so absurd it needs to be read to be believed.  Or be seen on film. 
On the whole, I found The Box to be an entertaining and fast-paced read that delivered plenty to amuse.  Stanković tells his story with an ease and sincerity that implies it is at least partly autobiographical.  The writing style is minimal, but the realism is ever present.  It is a highly visual novel, testifying to its screenplay origins, conjuring vivid images as the stream of characters enter, entertain and exit.

The clever use of rock references is a nice touch and provides emphasis at key moments.  As well as giving the story valuable credentials and an uber-cool soundtrack, it adds genuine heart at key momentsCue a stream of rock god name-checking and lyrics by musical greats The Clash, Rolling Stones and Nick Cave, plus a sprinkling of home grown YU talent.

Geopoetika has done a good job with this translation from Serbian to English – apart from the occasional spelling mistake that should have been picked up by a proof reader.  The flow is smooth and the dialogue sounds genuine: not always the case with translations.

I would definitely recommend The Box. Although the story works on multiple layers, it is not over-stylised. It doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. It does what it says on the box. It made me laugh out loud. It made me think of friends in Belgrade. It encouraged me to revisit some great music. That sounds like a neat hat-trick that would make even Red Star proud.

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