Swans Commentary » swans.com October 19, 2009  



Talespinning Sarajevo-Chicago


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Hemon, Aleksandar: The Question of Bruno, Picador, London, 2001, ISBN 0-330-39348-0, 232 pages; Nowhere Man, Picador, London, 2003, ISBN 0-330-39350-2, 242 pages; The Lazarus Project, with photographs, Picador, London, 2008, ISBN 978-0-330-45841-2, 294 pages; Love And Obstacles, Stories, Penguin, New York, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59448-864-1, 210 pages.



All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is. The Lazarus Project (Page 2)


(Swans - October 19, 2009)   Aleksandar Hemon tells stories. One of the most effective hasn't gone into a poem, novel, or novella. It's been wafted out in marathon interviews and thumping broadsides over Chicago and then over the book-buying world at large. Suspiciously articulate up there above flat middle America, it spiked in arrogance and dipped in humility to keep short attention spans from slumber. Glimpses of foreign buffoonery softened the note of foreign superiority. Stern Joseph Conrad stood in for Alek, the boy wonder's old man, and Ma Nabokov was said to have supplied the thesaurus gene. The inflated preview, meant to get us pulling for the poor waif, made some readers feel that they'd had enough already without opening the books of the gabby Bosnian. They were wrong; he's actually pretty good.

Here's the Hemon story stripped down to its Balkan BVDs. Arty young Sarajevan Beatles fan looks for himself in rock music and angst only to irrupt in out-of-control poetry. A chance encounter gets him a freeloading jaunt to the U.S.A., and he's in Chicago in 1992 when Bosnia explodes. Fighting off his deserter's guilt, he decides to stay. There follow five years as an odd-job immigrant obsessively learning to write English. He rubs up against academia at Northwestern University, publishes a novel written in English and, in 2004, wins a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Writers' block he does not know, turning out columns for local papers in Bosnian and English. He crowns his premature life story by decrying "minimalism" and declaring his undying love for the English dictionary. He makes friends and influences people including a New Yorker editor who falls for his recherché coupling of words. Hemon announces he's a post-modern and, in case we haven't noticed, concerned with his identity.

The stories of The Question of Bruno (2000) begin and end in the author's childhood. He outlines his pre-pubertal ambition to be a spy against a jaunty and detailed account of the superspy Victor Sorge's career. The fiction then escapes from what used to be misnamed "undergraduate humor" -- it was actually wild oats humor -- and digs around the roots of the much displaced Hemon family. The book unfolds during the period of Croatia's war of independence from Belgrade and the Bosnian conflict triggered by Bosnia-Herzegovina's withdrawal from the Federation. The story The Coin plunges into the siege of Sarajevo, an event permanently on the author's mind. Considering that the population of the city was 650,000 before he left and only 222,000 at last count might explain his fixation.

The longest story in The Question of Bruno chronicles the first days (1992) in America of Jozef Pronek who will become familiar to readers as Hemon's literary front man. Pronek confronts cultural shock with an armory of Vladimir Nabokov's verbal tricks.

Pronek kept flushing the scintillating toilet, watching with amazement (he had an entirely different concept of the toilet bowl from ours) how the water at the bottom was enthusiastically slurped in, only to rise, with liquid cocksureness, back to the original level. (Pages 146-7)

The influence of Nabokov, self-confessed but hardly an indictable crime on Hemon's part, is real and can be dispatched quickly. As in the above Hemon readily lends animation to the inanimate. He also favors surprising qualifiers: a deflated football is "soulless," body odor results from "mischievous molecules," pigeons form a "jury," a belly has a "ledge," and someone wrinkles his nose in "a sneeze of happiness." Hemon, also like the Russian patrician, uses the sensibility of a foreigner -- the likes of Pnin and Humbert Humbert -- to take a fresh look at American life. But where he can most seriously vie with Nabokov is in uncovering everyday American oddity. "What kind of evolutional soup did these people emerge from?"

In Pronek's hearing, a young man telephones a dating service: "Hi, my name is William. Uhmm. I like Pulp Fiction and Asian cuisine and David Sedaris." When Pronek canvasses for Greenpeace, a woman he's never seen before answers the door saying: "Come on in. I've been waiting for you. [...] I made the won-ton soup you like." Another householder asks Pronek, "Have you ever killed a Muslim?", adding, "I fought in a war. I was a sharpshooter. Forty-six successful terminations." Then he gives Pronek ten dollars for the dolphins.

Pronek has dinner with his girlfriend Andrea's parents:

'We like good writing,' Andrea's mother said.
'Have you ever read Richard Ford?' Andrea's father asked.
'Sensitive middle-class macho shit,' Andrea snapped and looked at Pronek, who simply said, 'No.'
'Very well written,' Andrea's father said and shook his head, as if rattling it. 'Very well written.'
'And we like Kundera,' Andrea's mother said. 'He's from Czechoslovakia, too.' [...]
'Yugoslavia, Mom, Yugoslavia,' Andrea said. (Page 176)

It's this dinner out that furnishes Hemon's title. Andrea's grandmother, far-gone in senile dementia, talks only of an inexistent Bruno. Pronek sees himself as the same kind of ghost. It was the sentiment behind Nowhere Man (2002). This non-novel is so full of talent, brilliance and breakneck invention that its overall sense gets blurred. But then the publishers only market it as a novel because they know that short stories don't sell. As a collection of fragments, some substantial, some slim, it wouldn't have to have the impact of a laser beam.

The action takes place from 1991 to 1997 in Eastern Europe and Chicago. Historical reverberations are added by a Chekhovian excursion that morphs into a William S. Burroughs's joy ride to Kiev and Shanghai a century earlier. There's also a look back to 1967 in Sarajevo and the birth of Jozef Pronek whom we have met in The Question of Bruno as an adult adrift in Chicago. The generic figure of Hemon's work is here sometimes doubled by an inner and different Jozef or present under another name altogether. In the guise of the American graduate student Victor Plavchuk, he remains beset by the familiar Pronek doubts and equipped with the same disconcerting gift of hatching metaphors.

Pronek-Hemon's sojourn in Chicago has spared him the ordeal of involvement in a brutal war on his doorstep, and he can't forgive himself for being away. His parents and friends were not so lucky, though Pronek from a distance seems to have a more searing memory of the horrors undergone than they do. This is partly due to TV coverage and partly to the nature of the conflict. Pronek, with his feet up in Chicago, could watch his own boyhood bedroom being shelled and people he knew being shot down in front of his house in Sarajevo. His sudden awareness of the tiny, momentous separation between life and death has scarred him deeply. He's left with an urge for destruction whose irruption amazes his new American acquaintances. In fact, less irrational than it appears, this is Pronek's reaction to a world that he has suddenly learnt can't do without death.

It's been said that the people of the Balkans have had more history than they will ever be able to digest. So has Jozef Pronek. He's one piece of an ethnic picture puzzle that he knows has too many pieces to ever make one rectangular landscape. There will be leftover pieces that have to be eliminated. Pronek's solution was simply not to seek one, to live and let live in the temporary urban truce that was his city.

Born in Sarajevo of Bosnians, a local mother and a Ukrainian-descended father, he was at home with his city's Muslims and Serbs. He never stops declaring that Bosnian is not an ethnicity but a citizenship. It's not arrogance or even pride but simply the weight of destiny that he agrees to carry. His stance makes us feel the tremendous importance regional attachments can have. His parents, state employees, are Yugoslavian patriots and he himself seems to have had, apart from youthful irreverence, no grievances against the Federation. When it breaks up, he's neither displeased nor enthusiastic. Even when the ethnic harmony is shattered, he doesn't fall into militancy and hate of the "other." He is simply against death and suffering. (But Hemon in interviews has blamed Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbian regime for Sarajevo's destruction.)

In Chicago Pronek can't escape the Balkan predicament. In a masterly sketch Hemon follows his alter ego's attempt to become a private eye. An old fox in the profession judges Pronek to be absolutely inept as an apprentice flatfoot. However, he hires the young man for a small job of delivering a summons to a Serbian who refuses to pay child support. Pronek's knowledge of Serbo-Croat will get the runaway dad to open his front door. But the stratagem falters when the gun wielding Serb forces Pronek to come in and sit down to share his Serbian woes. As a non-Serbian Bosnian, Pronek would have been the expatriate Serb's enemy, but by stressing his Ukrainian name he's welcomed as a Slav brother. This entitles him to an emotional account of the man's misfortunes while the pistol lies between them on the table.

The wife that the Serb fails to support was Croatian. This made domestic life difficult in the war between Serbia and Croatia. In fact the abandoned wife's brothers, Ustashe to boot, are gunning for the tearful and unsettling deadbeat progenitor. When Pronek finally extricates himself from his Slavic embrace, he finds it impossible to explain the situation to his employer. The veteran detective, though the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland, has adopted American simplicity on ethnic questions. Like Andrea's friends, he wonders, "What's wrong with you people? Can't you chill out?" It's this North American take on world history (alas, central to US foreign policy) that makes Pronek feel his Balkan soul has been cancelled when his passport was stamped.

Before opening The Lazarus Project (2008), Hemon's most impressive book to date, we ought to look into the claim of post-modernism he glibly made for himself. In The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man, this amounts to a freedom in switching narrative voices. Hemon moves confidently between first and third person with the occasional butting in of yet another unidentified off-stage commentator. He allows his narrators endless (and often annoying) asides that mix in their elaborate fantasies with the supposedly real action described. All this makes for robust and lively writing, but shows up a label like post-modern as nothing more than a blurb writer's stutter.

Invention in The Lazarus Project, however, goes much deeper. Time, history, and memory are juggled and made to illuminate our "terror"-obsessed present. Hemon, versed in the immigrant's predicament and the cruelty of settled society, projects his insight into the past. He tells the story, based on actual events, of the murder of Lazarus Averbuch in 1908. The unarmed victim appeared in some confusion at the home of the Chicago Police Chief and was promptly shot seven times as a presumed anarchist bent on assassination. Suit-and-tie Chicagoans were still aflutter over the Haymarket commotion of 1886 and imagined insurrection on the boil in every slum and sweatshop. Moreover, horror of horrors, Emma Goldman was coming to town on a lecture tour.

Hemon's fascinating account intertwines the rhetoric of The Chicago Tribune with the simian grunts of the police and the oily hypocrisy of the securely established immigrant centers of power. This last included the negidim, or top-hat local Jews whose cringing is unforgiveable: Lazarus Averbuch fled the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev (now in Moldova) to the hell of a so-called refugee camp in Czernowitz. He presented no more danger to society than a whipped three-legged mongrel.

Hemon wasn't Muslim or Serbian in Sarajevo, and his father's family wasn't Jewish in the pogrom-rife region (the Kishinev area) they came from. From his foothold on the sidelines the writer tries to view events with cool passion. His account of Chicago a century ago is intercut by the doings of the familiar Hemon alter ego. The uneasy new American will set out with a photographer friend to seek Averbuch's and his own roots in Eastern Europe.

The friend has lived through the siege of Sarajevo and keeps guilt simmering in Hemon (aka Vladimir Brik in this incarnation). Their wandering reveals a human landscape that's far from reassuring. The new borders are dangerously fragile. The travelers' investigation of the ethnic-crimes of the past is soon overwhelmed by the evils of the present: human trafficking in women, mental scars of war, criminal arrogance of the nouveaux riches, venal bureaucracies flaunting their power.

Love and Obstacles, (2009) Hemon's latest book, takes its title from one of the author's now faraway Sarajevo poems. Eight linked stories are told by the usual, variously-named Hemon narrator, who basks yet again in his Bosnian identity with Chicago top dressing. A story like The Conductor manages to touch all bases: A Bosnian café lounger turns bohemian hero in wartime. But in the anonymity of US academia his poetic genius is only drunken exuberance to his American wife. It's a solid if conventional homerun complete with high-cheekboned pathos. Stairway To Heaven takes us to a Kinshasa full of sparkling words that often connect to realities. But have we come through all those dictionary and thesaurus pages just to visit Garry Trudeau country? Make-believe not only drives the characters of these stories hard; it begins to eat away the framework of fiction. The reader fears at times he may have been locked up in a book-sized room full of mad fantasists by an author who has checked out.

As one story follows another it's apparent that there's a struggle going on. Hemon has to clear the stage of his boyhood self cum immigrant in shock. But the kid is stubborn and stays put. The only answer may be the big hook. It was what vaudeville managers used to exit a performer who had finished his act with a whimper but wouldn't call it a day. The last two stories of the collection, American Commando and The Noble Truths of Suffering are listless reruns of the boy-from-Sarajevo routine.

We can stop bantering about his post-modernism. Aleksandar Hemon may be leaving Sarajevo behind. The second act of his life in Chicago could be about to begin. The fear now is that to delight the glossy weeklies he gets stuck in some brittle, gonzo spyland. His possibilities are huge. We hope he makes it safely post-New Yorker.


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Published October 19, 2009