I’ve read all of Aleksandar Hemon’s books. They have been blurbed and reviewed by the most enthusiastic of blurbers and reviewers: “dazzling, astonishingly creative prose” with “remarkable, haunting autobiographical elements.” The latest Hemon offering, Love and Obstacles (Riverhead Books, 210 pages), is a series of short stories, most of which continue in Hemon’s now familiar reminiscent strain. They amount to a kind of Bildungsroman, the story of a guy from Sarajevo who comes to America—in a word, Hemon’s own story, and therein lies the problem. Or, to put it more precisely, there may have been no problem when he started writing in this nostalgic, reminiscent vein, but by now the problem is obvious. What I’m writing about below is, primarily, that problem.
What seems to have most dazzled and astonished the blurbers and reviewers of Hemon’s books is his ability to find unusual metaphors and write with unique phrasing in his adopted language. Once again in Love and Obstacles his sentences are often impressive. In the first story, “Stairway to Heaven,” “the night smelled of burnt flesh and fecundity; the darkness outside was spacious and uncarvable.” In later stories a freezer smells of “clean subzero death,” (58), a “cataractous moon” hangs in the sky, the poet Dedo exudes “a rotten-fruit smell, as if his flesh had fermented”—Hemon is good at describing smells, especially the most repellent of smells.
Some pages have sunbursts of brilliant imagery; there is the boy rolling the body of someone shot by a sniper up a hill, and the rock of Sisyphus is recalled. There is the surgeon, “putting together his wife’s face after it has been blown apart by shrapnel, a piece of her cheek missing, the exact spot where he liked to plant his good-night kiss.” There is a foreign conductor hanging “on a rope like a deft spider, over his orchestra playing the Eroica in a burnt-out building.” And then there is the man making his way through sniper fire, he who suddenly stops to tie his shoe, and the snipers, respecting that mundane need, cease firing. These scenes come, ostensibly, from the poems of Muhamed D. (Dedo), and so are, in a sense, not Hemon’s at all. But it’s oddly moving, the way that some of his best, most powerful imagery is connected to the war in the former Yugoslavia, the one that he missed when he came to the U.S.
Hemon has a good eye for detail. Take the alcoholic (and apparently homosexual) priest in “Good Living,” who sits drinking scotch, with “potato-chip crumbles” on his “potbelly ledge.” Sometimes the author tries too hard to achieve creative effects. What, exactly, is the “cataractous moon,”mentioned above—is it a moon with cataracts? We have “the stairs squeaked with untroddenness.” In the first place, the final word is impossibly clumsy, and, in the second place, if the stairs are not trodden upon, then how can they squeak? There appears “a tattered cat that looked like a leprechaun dog.” Like a what? It’s difficult to figure out, as well, in what sense darkness can be “uncarvable.” Worst of all are the throbbing phalluses (35, 108). This image, which recalls the clichés of pornography, always makes me laugh.
The story “Everything,” like the others, describes the tribulations of the “I” narrator, who is still just an adolescent here. He is fleeing from his family and yearning to return to it simultaneously. Even in the final story, “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” in which the narrator is already grown, living in America, having already established a reputation as a writer and having begun publishing in The New Yorker, he still seems to be running from his family, while somehow yearning to run back. As most of the stories, this one ends on a sad note: the war begins, the electricity goes off, and all the meat in the new freezer rots. In the final story, by the way, the writer Macalister says (about everything) that he knows nothing about anything:
“There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side. There was no walker, no path, just walking. This was it, whoever you were, wherever you were, whatever it was, and you had to make peace with that fact.”
“This?” I asked. “What is this?”
THE NARRATOR’S MALAISE, THE SOLIPSISM
Almost all of the stories in this collection end on a discordant note. In “Stairway to Heaven,” the narrator’s family (the same family that is portrayed in most of the other stories) is living in Africa, apparently doing not badly. The narrator, who is going through the throes of adolescence, has some unpleasant encounters with a sleazy American, but, on the whole, we have here a family much like any other. It is something of a shock, therefore, when, at the end of the story, the family members are described as laughing artificially, while “hiding desperately our rope burns.” It seems to me that the “rope burns” are to come only later for this family, when the war displaces them.
The “I” narrator, like most of Hemon’s first-person narrators in so much of what he has written, is angry, dissatisfied with the world and with his place in it. An exception is the story “Good Living,” where we find a rare note of contentment. The narrator has been selling magazine subscriptions in Chicago, door to door, and he happens upon a priest who not only subscribes, but lends his prestige to the salesman’s efforts (so that many others in the neighborhood also take subscriptions). The story ends, “I could live here forever. This is a good place for me.” It reminds me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which describes one “happy” day in a concentration camp.
Why is the narrator so angry? Because things are eating at him: (1) the war in the former Yugoslavia has deprived him of his country, left him an emigrant (2) he is guilty at having come to America and opted out of the suffering in Sarajevo during the war (3) although he has become a successful writer in his new country, he is consistently insecure and jealous of other writers. The issue of solipsism and the perils of first-person narration, both central to this collection as a whole, first appears obvious in the story called “The Conductor.” The main character is the Bosnian poet Muhamed D. (nicknamed Dedo), and you would expect, therefore, that the title would be “Muhamed, a.k.a. Dedo” or something like that. But the narrator wants everything to center around himself: “I bought the anthology to see where I would fit into the pleaid of Bosnian poets.” For the title of the story, naturally, he uses his own (nick) name. After all, the whole collection is about “me, me, me,” and by the time we have read all of the stories, we realize that this presents a serious problem.
You wonder why the book is called “Love and Obstacles.” Twice the narrator mentions that he has written a poem by that name, and towards the end of the collection, in “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” he mentions his fictitious New Yorker story with the same title. We never get a look at either the poem or the story, but I believe that the title “Love and Obstacles,” seen in the light of the prominent issues of the collection, suggests the narrator’s deep frustration. He is wrapped up in himself, too much in love with himself (actually he’s in “love-hate”), and there are just too many obstacles to his ever feeling loved enough (by others) to be contented.
THE MOTIF OF THE ROOTLESS EMIGRANT AND THE GUILT
Most of what Aleksandar Hemon has written revolves around the issue of emigration and guilt:
“My story is boring: I was not in Sarajevo when the war began; I felt helplessness and guilt as I watched the destruction of my home town on TV.”
There you have it in a nutshell. The story about Dedo (“The Conductor”) demonstrates how the life of our narrator might have been different, if he, like the redoubtable drunken poet Dedo, had stayed in his country, weathered the war, and written powerful works based on that hideous wartime experience. But he didn’t, so he cannot get over envying writers like Dedo, and feeling guilty and inferior to such people. He travels America, giving readings of his stories, “fretting all along that an enraged reader would stand up and expose me as a fraud, as someone who had no talent—and therefore no right to talk about the suffering of others.” It is remarkable how consistently laden with self-accusation and self-hatred are Hemon’s first-person narratives, not only in the present collection, but in much else that he has written. Sometimes the anger and frustration in the stories is tempered by humor (he has a good sense of humor), as in the scenes where the narrator and Dedo drink to excess and return to face the wrath of the Amazonian American woman whom Dedo has married. At other times the humor cannot cope with the squalor and despondency depicted, as in “Szmura’s Room.”
In this collection it is not only the narrator who emigrates from Sarajevo. It is his whole family. He goes to the U.S., his sister to New Zealand, and his parents to Canada. The “theme of the DP” is especially prominent in “The Bees, Part I,” which describes the narrator’s father, his lovable eccentricities, and his attempt to cope with a new life in Canada. The problem for the emigrant (any emigrant) lies in his taking with him to a new country his whole past experience. In his mind he recalls, largely, only the good things about his abandoned homeland, while dwelling, largely, on what is bad about his adopted country. Hemon’s narrators rail against the U.S. in many of his stories, not only in this book. The main problem with America (for him) is that it has nothing in common with Bosnia. Everything in the culture new and different infuriates him, even the American institution of football, with those big morons banging heads. At least in this collection Hemon spares us our beloved baseball. I recall once meeting a touring Russian soccer team in the U.S., and listening to their coach speak, with utter contempt, about the game of American football, which, of course, he had never played, and about which he knew next to nothing. But our ignorance never stands in the way of our hasty and vehement judgments of things that are alien to us.
While the narrator fulminates against the cultural wasteland that America is (and yes, friends, you have to admit that American “culture” has its drawbacks), his father, newly arrived in Canada, is castigating that country. His sister (“Sestra”—we never learn her name) is not depicted railing against her new country of New Zealand, but maybe this is only because the sister is a shadowy figure in all the stories, and is never given much to say.
The saddest thing about the plight of the émigré is not, however, his failure to adjust to his new homeland. It is the irrevocable loss of his original homeland. He doesn’t like the new place, but when he returns to the old place it is no longer there either. It’s like the Czech professor of German whom I once knew. He no longer had a native language, since he had lived in the U.S. and forgotten how to speak Czech, but his English and German was heavily accented. He, like Hemon’s narrator, was a kind of “nowhere man.” The tragedy of being homeless is especially well described in the collection’s final story, “The Noble Truths of Suffering.” Set in Sarajevo, it describes the family back in the very same apartment where they lived before the war. They are back, but the city has changed, and it is no longer entirely congenial to them. They are back home, but homeless.
BOREDOM AND THE EGO-DRIVEN NARRATOR
In reading many of the stories in this collection, I keep asking myself why they bore me. The answer, I think, is that the writer sometimes makes the issue of boredom a leitmotif. He admits to considering his fiction boring (“My story is boring”), and in one tale (the worst in this collection), “American Commando,” the action centers around boredom. We have the self-possessed narrator going on and on, enthralled with his recollections of the war games he and his childhood friends used to play. He is describing those games to a Bosnian woman who is filming him, who is, obviously bored, while simultaneously the reader (at least this reader) is also falling asleep in front of the pages of the book. The irony, of course, is that here is a guy who skipped out on the real war, but in looking back on his past, he finds his own childish obsessions much more interesting than anything real. It’s a daring tack to take, writing a story about boredom. Why? Because if you write a boring story you bore your readers.
The literary problem of the egotistical “I” narrator finds its ultimate expression in “American Commando.” It’s as if the whole collection were intended as a lesson to Hemon himself: “You’ve exhausted the mode of the reminiscent in your stories, you’ve spent too much time lending the narration to an alter ego, dwelling upon the “I” and its tribulations. It’s beginning to get boring. It’s high time to write something in the third person.” Who is delivering that message to Hemon? Hemon’s first-person narrator, his alter ego, who is just another version of Hemon.
We sometimes see a story straining to be told by an omniscient narrator. “Szmura’s Room” starts out in the third person; the whole thing (Bogdan’s sad tale) could easily be told by an omniscient narrator. What we get, instead, is a strange sort of disguised narration. It’s as if the “I” narrator, the same person who tells the other stories, feels embarrassed to relate this one in the first person. Why? Because the story describes his arrival in the U.S. and his hapless existence as a boarder with a tyrannical and disgusting guy named Szmura.
There are many hints that “Bogdan” is really a fictional double of the narrator, e.g., “He reminded me so much of myself, as I had been not so long before.” Rather than admit to his ignominious existence with Szmura, the narrator passes himself off as far superior to Bogdan, condescends to him as do all the other characters. Many of the scenes describing Bogdan could simply not have been observed by the narrator who relates them, and it’s a stretch to assume that all of his information comes from Szmura, who could not possibly be privy to it.
Bogdan is the narrator, disguised by the narrator, and if he is not, then we have in this story a textbook example of problems with “point of view.” Take the scene depicting Bogdan’s visit to the Museum of Ukrainian Culture and History. The narrator was not there to describe the visit, nor was Szmura. In fact, the most interesting thing about the whole boring story is its skewed point of view, the way that it’s a story about a guy pretending that the main character is not himself.
“American Commando,” which could be titled “The Tale of a Solipsist,” is boring, and the narrator’s “chewing gum” pronunciation of American English is silly, and the narrator is well aware that it’s all boring and silly, as is the author Hemon. But the author and narrator let the tale of the playing children go on and on, presumably, to illustrate a point: “this is what I must get away from in subsequent works of fiction. I must excise the dreary self-possession from my works.”
It would be more than depressing, had the collection Love and Obstacles ended with “American Commando,” but lo and behold, with the final story, “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” it is beginning to look as if the narrator and Hemon had finally heeded the message shouted loudly at them by “American Commando” and by other stories in the reminiscent vein.
Here the same “I” narrator is telling the tale. Now he is older and somewhat wiser, having been through a divorce and breakdown. His parents appear again in this story as well, but here their function in not just to provide fodder for nostalgic recollections of the past. The story is set in Sarajevo, where both the narrator and his parents are visiting, living in their old apartment. As mentioned above, they have come home to a place that is not the same place anymore—they are eternal émigrés now, and they live in a museum: “this home was the museum of our lives, and it was no Louvre.”
The narrator finds time even in Sarajevo to throw a few lightning bolts in America’s direction. Typical is this remark: “I had had enough of America and Americans to last me for another lousy lifetime.” In almost everything he has written Hemon’s American characters have been portrayed as drooling dolts obsessed with cheeseburgers, so it is a revelation to find the writer Macalister in this story, a character both sympathetic and interesting.
“The Noble Truths of Suffering” stands on its own as a work of fiction, but there are little touches linking it to the other stories in the collection. The narrator’s teenage love Azra, e.g., shows up again, and he does not even recognize this woman, although he remarks, “for all I knew, I could have had a hopeless crush on her in high school.” A theme linking this story to the others is the narrator’s feelings of inferiority and jealousy in regard to other writers, and there are typically Hemonian lyrical, nostalgic evocations of Sarajevo. One of these features a description of the snow falling, “each flake coming down patiently, as if abseiling down an obscure silky thread.” None of my dictionaries are up to defining the word “abseiling.” Apparently it is too old or too new for them.
The leitmotif of “suffering” runs throughout the stories. Who has suffered and who has not? Are there moral degrees of suffering, so that those who have suffered the most can feel superior to those who have not? What “noble truths” does suffering teach us (if any)? Hemon and his narrators, of course, feel guilty for not having suffered through the war. In “Good Living” the priest asks the narrator if he has lost any loved ones in the strife, and the narrator, in pursuit of magazine sales, lies. The priest calls to his companion, “Come here and see someone who is really suffering,” but by the end of the story you realize that this priest, who has never been anywhere near a war and has not lost his country, is a suffering character himself—much more deeply immured in sorrow than the narrator.
Suffering from feelings of guilt and inadequacy, Hemon’s narrator (here as in the other stories) is mad at the world; he envies, especially, those who are placid. Macalister, the writer who has been through it all (alcoholism, divorce, war), is, in the narrator’s conception, the kind of man he would like to be, one who has suffered but has now found peace, who can look at a thing “as though it didn’t matter, because he would always be safe inside himself.”
“The Noble Truths of Suffering” is a story about writing fiction, describing how bits and pieces of detail, picked up by a writer in his daily comings and goings, coalesce in a writer’s subconscious, to create new worlds. Macalister visits the narrator and his family in their Sarajevo apartment, dines with them. There are souvenirs of their time in Africa in the apartment, there is a TV on, playing out scenes from the carnage in Baghdad, of American soldiers engaged in warfare. In the years subsequent to this one encounter with Macalister, the envious and ever insecure narrator begins reading his works obsessively, searching in Macalister’s fiction for evidence of himself and his family, “hoping to detect traces of us in his writing, as though that would confirm our evanescent presence in the world” (206). It’s as if people who have little ontological identity can become more real, can take on flesh and blood by becoming characters in a fiction.
In Macalister’s latest novel The Noble Truths of Suffering the narrator finally finds the traces he has been looking for. The theme of Macalister’s book is wartime Iraq and the consequences (for American soldiers) of fighting in that war, and it is even possible that the scenes on the TV in Sarajevo provided the first dim creative impulses for the novel. Macalister’s creative subconscious may also have sensed the tragedy of the displaced person, of which that humble Bosnian apartment reeks, for when his imagination has finished marinating the diffuse details that it collected at the dinner table in Sarajevo, it puts them to use in a scene describing an even greater family tragedy: the loss of a child in war.
Tiny, the Marine hero of Macalister’s novel drives drunk through a snowstorm to visit the elderly parents of his dead comrade Declan. The parents “are ancient and tired, tanned with deep grief.” The narrator recognizes the parents as pale refractions of his own, sees in a multitude of details how Macalister has transformed a scene from Sarajevo (with parents and living son) into a scene in Michigan (with parents and dead son). Declan’s parents listen to the gory details of Tiny’s story, about a gang rape and murder in Iraq, with absolute placidity, because “there is nothing except grief” left for them since their son’s death.
On the last page of the book the narrator finds himself face to face (in a work of fiction) with genuine suffering and grief. The tragedy of losing one’s whole previous life and becoming a DP is tragedy enough, but this other grief, the grief that takes away all hope, is much worse. So much for the leitmotif of “suffering.” The final few paragraphs are cited directly from The Noble Truths of Suffering (Macalister’s novel), a fictitious novel by a fictitious American writer. Hemon demonstrates, near the conclusion, that it is really he (and his ego-driven narrator) who have made up the Macalister story. He inserts his own description of the “abseiling snowflakes,” something that Macalister could not have invented.
So here we have, at last, an outstanding story, the only story in the whole collection that glitters with creative artistic insight. It is not a string of vignettes stuck together, as are so many of Hemon’s stories. It is a real short story, with a beginning, middle and end. The narrator here describes a fictitious novel that he very well could write himself. The scenes from that novel (outlined here) are powerful. Maybe he even intends to write such a novel, a novel about the war in Iraq, a third person narrative describing characters who, finally, are not him.
What comes next for Aleksandar Hemon, we hope, is precisely such a novel, a work in which the hazards of the first person narration (the egotism, the solipsism) are left behind—in a word, a new creative departure. If anyone needs confirmation that he has written himself out in the first person mode, try going back and reading the first story of his first collection, a story called “Islands.” The story is simply brilliant, full of wonderful evocations, in striking language, of the feelings of a nine-year-old boy in Yugoslavia. It has no beginning, middle or end to speak of, but it can do without the traditional structure. Each of its minuscule chapters (“islands”) is awash in wonderful imagery and metaphors. Most of the stories in this latest collection cannot compare with “Islands” in aesthetic merit. It’s time to try something different now.
–U.R. Bowie, author of Disambiguations: Three Novellas on Russian Themes
THE NOBLE TRUTHS OF SUFFERING
The uniformed jaran did not acknowledge that I spoke in Bosnian to him. Silently, he checked my invitation, then compared the picture in my American passport with my mopey local face, and it appeared to have matched reasonably well. His head resembled an armchair–the deep-set forehead, the handlebar-like ears, the jutted jaw-seat–and I could not stop staring at it. He handed my back my passport with the invitation tucked inside it and said, with his furniture-head accent: “Good evening to you.”
The American ambassador’s house was a huge ugly new thing, famously built high up in the hills by a Bosnian tycoon before he abruptly decided he needed even more space, and, without spending a day in it, rented it to His American Excellency. There was still some work to be done–the narrow concrete path zigzagged meaninglessly through a veritable mud field; the bottom left corner of the frontage was unpainted, so it looked like a recently scarred-over wound. Farther up the hill, one could see a yellow lace threading the fringes of the woods, marking a wilderness thick with mines.