Love and Obstacles, Aleksandar Hemon, Riverhead Books
Like Nowhere Man and The Question of Bruno, Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles is a collection of short stories whose main narrator is a Bosnian man of Ukrainian extraction, or an American man of Bosnian-Ukrainian origin, whose father has worked as a diplomat in Africa and the Middle East during communism. We know that Hemon is indeed from Bosnia, but I am personally very curious to know whether indeed he is of Ukrainian origin and whether his father has worked as a diplomat, as the story “Stairway to Heaven” (in Love and Obstacles) or “The Sorge Spy Ring” (in The Question of Bruno) suggests.
Another element that seems to be autobiographical is the fact that in the early nineties, when he was a recent immigrant in Chicago, Hemon (apparently) worked as a door-to-door magazine salesman. “Good Living,” a story that takes its title from the magazine with the same name, narrates one day in the life of the young salesman with a strong Bosnian accent. This very short story condenses in several pages the portraits of a drunk, miserable priest, and an arrogant, handsome young man who wants to be an actor, through whom Hemon sketches in several strokes the life of an entire neighborhood.
The narrative continuity present not only within one book, but from one book to the next is so strong that one can only conclude that the narrator in these stories is indeed the same as the author, and that all the biographical information is autobiographical. Unless…it’s not. Hemon may very well be re-creating here a persona whole life is modeled on his, yet all—or most of—those elements that appear to be autobiographical because they recur in so many stories are in fact fictional.
One of Hemon’s gifts is that he knows how to use dialogue to create lifelike characters, all the while preserving their eccentricities and avoiding the trap of banality, which characterizes so many young contemporary American writers. For these writers, most of whom are products of workshops not of intense reading, “lifelike” dialogue consists of imitating some excruciatingly trivial dialogue one can hear in everyday life. Hemon knows that literature is not life even when it claims to stand for it, and a good, “natural” literary dialogue resides in giving the illusion of life, while at the same time searching for the essence of things, that is, for the very opposite of a real-life situation. One doesn’t find the essence of things by copying their appearance, as is presented to us in daily life. “Lifelike” dialogues and characters are never to be found in life; they are “life-like” precisely because they are not life, or rather they are life with a twist, i.e., literature.
Thus, “Szmura’s Room” goes to the essence of immigrant life by focusing on the one element that constitutes the very definition of an immigrant: a room—the minimal space of survival of the destitute person who arrives in a foreign country with no possessions of his own, has no relatives, no friends and only enough money to survive from one day to the next. The story’s conflict and drama are built around this apparently innocuous space, and the ending brims with irony: the immigrant who has survived the Bosnian war and made it to the land of the free, has his left eye blown out of its socket by the room’s owner.
Among the stories that recall the narrator’s (an American writer of Bosnian origin), and thus, presumably, Hemon’s childhood, “American Commando” reminded me of my own childhood in communist Romania—though, being a girl, I was simply a spectator not a participant in the “neighborhood wars” described by Hemon. This story also reminded me of Nostalgia, a novel in stories by the Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu, in which the rather prosaic reality of the war games played by inner-city kids among gray blocks of cement is transfigured into a mythical (and almost lyrical) paradise lost.
“American Commando” begins with a narration that could play the role of metaphor for Hemon’s own position within the context of American literature and culture: while in grammar school in Bosnia, he was in charge of wiping the chalkboard, so he would often leave the classroom to wash the sponge. As he walked back to the classroom, he would stop by the door, taking an intense pleasure in eavesdropping on what was going on inside. The pleasure came from the feeling that, while everyone else was inside, he was outside, and thus free. Later in the same story, he comes back to this feeling and redefines it: maybe the pleasure came from the ambiguous state of being both inside and outside. I can testify to the fact that this is the pleasure one feels when writing in a language not one’s own.