Love & Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

01/08/09, The Times

Much of the work of celebrated Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon seems intent on redefining the texture of the membrane that separates straightforward ‘autobiographical’ fiction from the more nuanced and playful presences of several authorial personae dancing around the figure of Hemon the writer. The character of Brik in his previous novel, The Lazarus Project, or the figure of Jozef Pronek in his extraordinarily written first novel, The Question of Bruno, and its follow-up, Nowhere Man, are all versions of Hemon but under an erasure mark, fugitive, slippery, yet unflinchingly honest and searching.

In Love & Obstacles, a collection which uses as its cohering principle the same first-person narrator for all the stories, this trademark practice is in dazzling evidence. Like Hemon, he comes to visit Chicago in the early nineties only to find that he cannot return to his native Sarajevo because the city has come under siege and the end of Yugoslavia is around the corner. Struggling in small-time jobs, he tries to make his mark as a writer, while the pendulum swings of an immigrant’s life, between a home to which one can never return and a new land where homecoming is a mirage, agonize him into an artful eloquence and memorial reconstruction of past life, much as ‘mad Ireland’ had hurt Yeats into poetry. In the first story, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, set in Zaire, the teenage narrator’s loss of innocence combines a seemingly antithetical mixture of a sixteen-year-old’s moody introspectiveness and a hyperattentive recording of the contextual outside world. In ‘Everything’, the narrator is entrusted to travel to a small town deep in Slovenia to buy a freezer chest for his family. The story then unexpectedly yet seamlessly tumbles into a cringingly embarrassing and hilarious account of a disastrous attempt to lose his virginity. The finest story in the book, ‘The Bees, Part 1’, almost casually embeds the disintegration of an entire nation in a double-framed narrative about the narrator’s father’s attempts to write an account of his beekeeping in Bosnia, before the war forces him to move to a suburb of Ontario. The story is ingenious, powerful and immeasurably moving. Equally rich and layered is ‘The Conductor’, on the surface a story about a strutting young Bosnian writer who is jealous of the sexual success of an elderly Bosnian poet, some kind of a living legend in his lifetime. But this story too enfolds exile and homelessness, assimilation and its failures, the spiky bequest of an older generation of artists to an younger, in the sulkily, aggressively masculine narrative. It is a devastating story that lays bare the dirty soul of a writer.

A whole new generation of American writers, almost all of them from ‘elsewhere’, is bringing about a major paradigm shift in Anglo-American writing. Hemon is the brightest star in this firmament. His style, muscular, original, lyrical yet anchored, irons out the lazy creases in language that comes from habitual use (a pandemic problem in this writing business) and holds up a startlingly different thing.