Reif Larsen: “The Puppet” from One Story #137, June 20, 2010

The National Library in Sarajevo. Photo from

For the first time in his life, Valise felt the alabaster ache of a story racing up the column of his spine, tendrilling the back of his neck, grasping at the base of his skull. All he wanted to do was this: to get Thorgen to trust him and to be the first to deliver his show to the world. To write the story that had never been written before,. That would split it all open. Les marionnettes dansent au couer de la guerre.

Hello, I am Zin! I am doing this story, from One Story back in June 2010, because it is my kind of story and I think Reif Larsen is my kind of writer from what I have seen of his first novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet and his plans for his next novel, which he says in the One Story Q&A is: “a love story that takes place in New Jersey about an epileptic radio operator. There’s puppets and particle physics in there somewhere. It’s very different than my first book, more of an international thriller. My version of Dan Brown, but a Willy Wonka Dan Brown.” This is a Zin book if I ever heard of one!

This story, “The Puppet” obviously has puppets. It also has particle physics: “We have two systems that work brilliantly on their own but are absolutely not compatible with each other. The principles of quantum tell us how the very small particles behave. And the smaller you get, the more uncertain things become. At the smallest, most minute level you find these tiny vibrating strings. They are never still – they tremble, they quiver, they can even be in two places at once.” Strings and puppets, those things relate. And war. The war in Bosnia, it is set there in Sarajevo, including the zoo where the animals have all been eaten, and the library which was destroyed – why would an army bomb a library? All these things fit together in this story. I love that they are all woven together so well.

Valise, he is our protagonist, and he has come to Sarajevo to be a war journalist (though he does not know how this is done) following the death of his father. He has loved war journalism since he read Hemingway and Dos Passos in his library in Oklahoma City and dreamed of elephants in the zoo there. And now he is in Bosnia and the elephants are bones and the library is “a great shell of a building,once elegant and sublime, now with scorch marks streaking the feathered weight of its façade.” He goes there to see a puppet show by Thorgen, the man who has told him about string theory. He finds “carcasses of thousands of books. They were splayed open everywhere, their pages burned, ghastly in their nakedness.” War has many horrors. It is odd that this is one that I find particularly excruciating. I think if I were in a war I would rather see books burned than people. But this scene breaks my heart.

So Valise stumbles his way through the war, and he links together all these things to discover this is not, after all, his story. To run across the world, through a battlefield to find what you want, and then to discover it is not what you want after all, this is so sad and so often true.

The story is not perfect, however. For one thing, there is a sentence missing in one of the early paragraphs. I was puzzled by the mention of “the woman in the picture” because I did not see where the picture had come from: turns out it was in a sentence that was omitted! Who omitted the sentence, the author or the editor, I do not know.

Also, as one clever reader noted on the One Story blog entry for this story, the time line is not quite right. The story takes place in approximately 1992 or 1993, and Valise, who has graduated from college, could not have been born before the late 1970s, as that is when his father came to America. I did not see this because I do not do those kinds of calculations while reading, but yes, I can see that maybe 1970s should be 1960s and maybe this is another mistake. This would be quite unusual. But it is a lovely story nonetheless!


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