Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead, 224 pp., $25.95
The first sentence of Aleksandar Hemon’s new story collection, Love and Obstacles, ushers the reader into a “perfect African night.” Hemon’s novels and stories have almost never strayed from gritty Sarajevo, bucolic Eastern European countryside, or the sprawling staging ground for the immigrant experience known as Chicago. Opening a Hemon book and finding yourself in Kinshasa is a little like discovering a Faulkner novel set in Japan.
But read on, through the next story, and the next, and Hemon’s familiar turf reasserts itself. Excepting the first story, all of Love and Obstacles takes place in Sarajevo, the Balkan hinterlands, or Chicagoland (extending west to Iowa City and north to Madison). The unnamed narrator — he tells all the stories, which appear in the order they take place — is of Ukrainian descent on his father’s side and Sarajevo-born, and by the third story has been stranded stateside because, in 1992, war broke out back home: the identical features of the lives of Hemon’s previous major characters, and of Hemon himself.
In his first collection, The Question of Bruno, Hemon noted that one can stand exactly where Gavrilo Princip stood on the Sarajevo bridge when he assassinated Archduke Ferdinand — the shoeprints are still there. But more broadly, in Hemon’s world you can stand in the footsteps of Princip or anyone else. His work to this point has been committed to conveying the fundamentally universal nature of human experience.
Hemon’s most generous creation, Jozef Pronek, was the subject of a novella in Bruno and of Hemon’s first novel, Nowhere Man. An obvious alter ego, the blatant resonances between Pronek and Hemon have the effect of suggesting the subtler ones between Pronek and you. Pronek is consumed by sevdah — a word linked to a type of Bosnian folk music, meaning “pleasant soul pain.” Yet Hemon alchemizes Pronek’s specific suffering, his sevdah, into something the reader is encouraged to see as a measurement of kinship, not distance. (Some critics believe the narrator of this new collection is Pronek, but I’m not convinced.) And while Nowhere Man hints at a shared life between disparate characters and between character and reader, Hemon’s novel The Lazarus Project, published last year, enacts it. Vladimir Brik — Ukrainian, Sarajevan, Chicagoan, etc., his marriage to an American neurosurgeon falling apart — becomes obsessed with the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jew who survived the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 only to be shot dead in 1908 by the Chicago police chief. Lazarus and Vladimir (as well as Lazarus’ beside-herself sister) share the similar experience, a century apart, of having the American promise fail them. Crucially, Vladimir can only understand its failing him by understanding and retelling the way it failed Lazarus. Hemon’s books have all suggested that we tell ourselves stories in order to understand each other. But Love and Obstacles often reads like a rebuttal to the possibility of universal comprehension, and a persuasive one.
Several of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker, and each stands on its own. Still, much like the stories in Dubliners, another collection by a virtuosic exile, together they tell a larger tale. For one thing, they’re bound together by the narrator, even if the book is mostly unconcerned with his own life. When he alludes to “the large number of things (my divorce, my breakdown, the War on Terror, everything) that had tormented me in Chicago,” it’s the first and last time we hear of such personal crises. Each story depicts friction between characters hailing from different worlds, and all resolve not into epiphany or catharsis, but into stark meditations on the difficulty of closure. Sometimes the irresolution explodes violently: In “Szmura’s Room,” for example, Bogdan, a survivor of the Bosnian war, is enlisted by his landlord for semi-criminal schemes; later, the landlord “blew Bogdan’s left eye right out of the socket with his first punch.”
Critics have often invoked Nabokov and Conrad when complimenting the non-native-speaking Hemon’s flexible English, and one only has to reach the “prostrate” towel in the very first story of Hemon’s first book to see these acrobatics in motion. But such praise has always struck me as a bit backhanded, implicitly casting Hemon (and, even more absurdly, Nabokov and Conrad) as merely lucky enough to have arrived at the language from a different tongue. Love and Obstacles provides further proof that Hemon is in total control of his unique voice.
But that voice is more devastating than ever before. In the book’s second story, “Everything” (titled “Love and Obstacles” when it ran in The New Yorker), the narrator journeys to Slovenia to buy a freezer for his family. He completes his task, but the story concludes darkly: “When the war began in the spring of 1992, and electricity in the city of Sarajevo was cut, everything in the freezer chest thawed, rotted in less than a week, and then finally perished.” In Hemon’s previous work, even the war connected people — one of Bruno’s loveliest stories consists of an exchange of letters between a typical Hemon-like character in Chicago and a girl in Sarajevo. But now the war is purely disruptive, creating only discontinuity.
That discontinuity, birthed during the narrator’s adolescence, matures in the penultimate story, “Death of the American Commando.” In it the narrator reminisces to a filmmaker, camera in hand, about a mission he and friends undertook as boys to prevent work on a nearby construction site (the story was surely written in the shadow of Graham Greene’s “The Destructors”). Looking back on his actions of two decades earlier, he is bewildered:
One builds one’s life on consistency; one invests it with the belief, however unsupported by reality, that one has always been what one is now, that even in one’s distant past one could recognize the seed from which this doomed flower has bloomed. Now I could not understand the devout thoroughness of my childhood obsessions, the myriad origins of my overactive imagination — I could not quite summon who I used to be.
The spaces between each other that people bridged in Hemon’s previous stories are replaced here with gulfs so wide that characters feel separated even from themselves.
This is also the first book in which Hemon — sorry, his alter ego — considers himself American. It might seem a strange thing to suggest of a narrator — and, let’s assume, an author — who could proclaim loathing for America’s “patriotic vulgarity,” as well as “the word ‘carbs’ and the systematic extermination of joy from American life” (coming from a Bosnian, “extermination” is quite the word). At the end of Nowhere Man, Pronek is sadly stoic about having to live in the U.S. The Lazarus Project ends with Vladimir positively forsaking America. However, from the bookending allures of an American spy in the first story and the American commando in the last that the narrator’s younger self fantasizes about being, to the realization, in the brisk “Good Living,” that “This is a good place for me,” the person here clearly sees America as home.
Actually, I like to think Hemon agrees with Dick Macalister, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist portrayed in the final (and finest) story in the collection, “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” when Macalister says, “I think Bush is a gaping asshole. But I like America and I like democracy. People are entitled to their mistakes.” Though coarse and only half-serious, the statement articulates a pluralist’s respect for variety of opinion. It’s the political cousin of Hemon’s newfound faith not in a commonality to which we all must aspire but in a singularity of each individual that we must, simply, let exist. Where Bosnian identity, so freighted by ethnicity and violent history, could tempt even the most cynical soul into wishing difference away, American identity’s plasticity encourages one to be more comfortable with difference.
The day after Macalister is feted at the American Embassy in Sarajevo, he visits the narrator’s parents’ home for lunch. Afterward, the narrator hears nothing from Macalister and bitterly assumes he has forgotten him and his family. But he soon finds that Macalister has lifted details from his parents’ living room and dialogue from their lunch and put them, in altered form, in his new novel. Earlier in the story, the narrator’s father had asked Macalister if his son was a good writer, and Macalister answered, “It takes a while to become a good writer.” In Macalister’s novel, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq asks his son’s friend and fellow soldier, who is visiting for lunch, if his son was a good soldier. “ ‘It takes a while to become a good soldier,’ Tiny said. ‘Declan was good. He was a good man’.” (The text from Macalister’s novel is italicized in the story.) The narrator is left in a state of ecstatic confoundedness.
Love and Obstacles thus ends where Dubliners does: not with snow falling faintly and faintly falling (although there’s that, too — at this point in Macalister’s novel, each flake is “abseiling down an obscure silky rope”), but with a pondering upon the impossibility of a person truly understanding another. Just as the narrator is helpless to fully inhabit Macalister’s mind, so Macalister and even Hemon cannot fully understand the parents of fallen soldiers — “There is nothing inside them, nothing except grief.” Hemon has suffered enough to know about the grief, but he dares not say more, because the noble truths of suffering are different for each sufferer.
Marc Tracy is a writer living in New York.
Books mentioned in this review: