Sunday, July 23, 2000
It's just not fair. Alexsandar Hemon has been writing in English for a grand total of about five years, and "The Question of Bruno" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.95), his insanely great collection of interlaced stories, shows that this Sarajevo native didn't take long to wrestle the language into submission.
Hemon visited the United States in 1992, and the shelling and sniping began in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, while he was here. Hemon watched it unfold on "Headline News," and decided to stay in Chicago. He worked dead-end jobs. And he learned to write in English. Man, did he learn to write in English.
Hemon's stories resonate with the lonely strains of Kafka, the sardonic cut-ups of Burroughs and the playfulness of Nabokov. That's not to say Hemon deserves a seat at the head table with these masters, but with these painfully sad, extremely funny stories -- set in Chicago and Sarajevo -- he certainly merits an introductory membership in their club.
Down to details
The actual stories -- weird, disturbing and peppered with wicked, often self-deprecating humor -- show skills, nuance and tone that most native writers wouldn't develop in a lifetime.
Hemon writes with a strange tenderness, wading through the conflict-laden history of what used to be Yugoslavia, dancing through the streets and faceless masses of America and never failing to capture the existential pangs that -- if we're truly honest about it -- dominate living.
In "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders," the second story in the collection and one of its more curious and formalist, Hemon writes aphoristically about a fictional character who interacts with historical figures such as Hitler and Eva Braun, Stalin, Tito, spy Richard Sorge, Archduke Ferdinand's assassin Gavrilo Princip and the Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin.
Hemon writes in Kauders' voice, "Since the day I was born, I have been waiting for the Judgment Day. And the Judgment Day is never coming. And, as I live, it is becoming all to clear to me. I was born after the Judgment Day," thus signaling the principal undercurrent of these stories -- a mix of nausea and absence in a world where snipers kill for glee and existence slouches along with little to no meaning.
What follows in the collection are stories of familial history, death, espionage, Eastern Bloc surveillance, the horror of snipers in Sarajevo war and assimilation into America all packed with acute observation, passion and the knowledge that, as he says in the notes to "Alphonse Kauders," "the verisimilitude of fiction is achieved by the exactness of the detail."
That detail comes to a fabulous post-modern zenith in "The Sorge Spy Ring." A 10-year-old Sarajevo boy dreams of being a secret agent, and is convinced that his traveling father is a spy. The boy wishes for "A poisonous fountain pen; a disguise kit (with a fake mustache and contact lenses that could change the color of my eyes); a matchbox containing a micro-camera; and a cyanide ampoule" to aid in his spying.
On its own, the story is a chilly look at the machinations of the secret police in mid-1970s Yugoslavia, but Hemon also weaves in, with methodically detailed footnotes, a complementary narrative about spy Richard Sorge.
Sorge, was a spy for Russia in Japan who warned Stalin that Germany would invade the U.S.S.R. Stalin, of course, dismissed the report. Sorge was eventually captured by Japanese authorities and summarily hanged. The history told by the footnotes -- Sorge's youthful indiscretions, how he got involved in spying, how he got his information, his arrest, his time in prison and a lonely Sorge standing on the gallows -- mirror the discoveries made by the child about his father.
While the aforementioned stories crackle with wit and literary invention, the story "A Coin" and the near-novella "Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls" vault Hemon to masterful heights.
In "A Coin," a young woman, Aida, dodges bullets in war-torn Sarajevo as she edits gruesome video footage that is beamed around the globe. Sickened by the carnage around her (in addition to the headless, limbless bodies she sees every day on tape), Aida secretly cuts her own tape from the most horrid images. "There once was that corny, idiotic movie Cinema Paradiso, where the projectionist kept all the kisses from films censored by a priest. Hence I christened the tape Cinema Inferno. I haven't watched it entirely yet. Some day I will, paying particular attention to the cuts, to see how the montage of death attractions works."
Again, Hemon logs the human devastation wrought by the conflict, but intercuts italic segments that sound autobiographical, as he sits helplessly in Chicago and watches the war on television, waiting for Aida's intermittent letters and watching the cockroaches scurry in his dumpy Windy City apartment. "What a horrible world, I thought, when every living creature lives and dies in fear. I reached for my left slipper, but the cockroach was already underneath the futon."
However, it's "Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls" that serves as the collection's spiritual and emotional core, as Hemon chronicles a life lived in America, complete with Super Bowl-crazed football fans, stoners playing old school Nintendo, numbing menial jobs and unsurpassed alienation from others and himself.
Pronek's story closely resembles Hemon's own, and the tone and voice of the story are pitch-perfect, as the immigrant tries to deal with the deadening effects of capitalism -- get paid; nab a better, less cockroach-infested pad; keep trying to learn the language; and write, dude, write.
Outwardly, the story operates as mini-chapters dedicated to hilarious instances of culture shock (such as losing a job for failing to note the difference between iceberg and Romaine lettuce) and off-beat observations. Underneath the light-heartedness, though, lurks a profound sense of deracination, which is not just tied to being a stranger in a strange land, but the realization "that everything would be exactly the same if the space his body occupied at that moment were empty."
Hemon writes, "He began thinking of himself as someone else -- a cartoon character, a dog, a detective, a madman -- and began fantasizing about abandoning his body altogether and becoming nothing, switching it off like the TV."
This, Hemon hauntingly tells us throughout "The Question of Bruno," is what has happened -- we're numbed, oblivious and pathetic. This is life in the land of the free.
-- Mark Luce, Lawrence, serves on the board of directors for the National Book Critics Circle and writes book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.