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Aleksandar Hemon has borne his share of crosses. The unlikely product of a mixed marriage between a Ukrainian and a Bosnian Serb, Hemon was caught traveling in the United States at the outset of 1992’s Serb-sponsored genocide in his native city. He became Chicago’s least-willing author-in-exile, navigating a series of service-industry jobs as the five years he had given himself to master English and write a publishable story in his adopted tongue ticked away. Though he met his goal two years early, he faced the more formidable task of connecting an American audience numbed by a barrage of impersonal AP reports and fiery CNN videotape with the recognizably human core of old-fashioned Eastern European ethnic hatred.
Mission accomplished: The blasts of fanfare that greeted The Question of Bruno indicate that Hemon has successfully put a face on what had remained a faceless holocaust for many on this side of the pond. No reader who picks up Hemon’s undeniably moving, majestically war-weary collection of stories will ever again allow the detached media’s information blitzkrieg to obscure the actual human beings somehow living in the battleground that is the former Yugoslavia. However, the author pays a price for the conflict’s much-needed personalization: inevitable, unprofitable comparisons to the literary saints of Eastern Europe, condescending enshrinement as well-spoken refugee du jour, and the ultimate reduction of one of the most complex ethnic crises the world has ever known to a literary footnote.
“To the elite ranks of writers from Eastern Europe—Conrad, Nabokov, and Kosinski among them—add the name of Aleksandar Hemon,” Stuart Dybek’s blurb on Bruno’s dust jacket uncompromisingly insists. “[T]he Guardian has anointed [Hemon] the ‘new Nabokov,’” Doubleday joyfully notes in a press release. But to shelve Hemon’s multifaceted, perspicacious work next to one-note, sprawling ubernarratives like Heart of Darkness or Lolita ignores his book’s refreshingly relativist quality. Loudmouthed, dreary existential crises—translated by Conrad into a boat trip up a jungle river to meet the savage inside every man and by Nabokov into the rejection of popular morality occasioned by forbidden glances at prepubescent girls’ legs—leave little room for dissenting voices. Hemon bucks this trend of modern novelhood, using wit and humor to offer a breathtakingly democratic portrait of a war with a diverse cast of characters but nary a capital-h Hero—nor capital-a Antihero—to be found.
In this literary universe without a center, tightly knit character studies like the desperately autobiographical “Islands” and “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls” use a motley crew of political and emotional refugees to trace a conflict the history books can only summarize. Whether riffing on his great-grandfather’s alleged eyewitness account of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand or weaving grand tragicomedy around an ill-fated family reunion, Hemon rightly refuses to answer—or even ask—the fundamentally unanswerable questions surrounding his subject matter. His wiry language presents enough of himself to avoid the smugness of the objective voice and obscures enough to allow inherent structural tensions to come to the fore; he doesn’t resort to the fascism of the first person. In this sense, Hemon follows the trail Vonnegut blazed in Slaughterhouse Five: The main characters are overcome by
“The Sorge Spy Ring” is the happy result of the author’s unflagging commitment to his now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t politics. Here, Hemon juxtaposes a childhood investigation into the possibility that his own father was a spy with the story of Richard Sorge, an actual Soviet agent whose warning that Germany would invade Russia was woefully ignored by Stalin. Though the double narrative makes for tough reading (the two stories frequently disappear in a maze of footnotes), what emerges is a compellingly paranoid reality check that forgoes questions of right and wrong for a more relevant consideration: what is real and can be proven. Does a person’s penchant for long telephone conversations in Russian provide incontrovertible evidence of his double identity? Does the discovery of a plastic cylinder presumably filled with cyanide in a suit-coat pocket push a suspicion of secret agency beyond a reasonable doubt? Because Hemon’s obsessive scrutiny of his father’s behavior is inspired by a children’s espionage book in which Sorge is profiled, can the father exist independently of the son’s imagined hero? Or is it Sorge who remains relegated to historical anecdote until little Aleksandar adopts him as an enthralling replacement for his own more pedestrian ancestry?
Hemon does not put these questions to his reader directly, instead allowing them to slowly bubble up through his writing. “The Sorge Spy Ring” emerges as an expertly executed meditation on those places where our experiences and the history woven around those experiences refuse to intersect.
Identity, subjectivity, hyperreality: This is the territory with which The Question of Bruno concerns itself, concluding that we are only what we appear to be. Hemon’s characters constantly flirt with cameras, looking to the modern media for some confirmation that, against all odds, they still walk the earth. The failed family reunion of “Exchange of Pleasant Words” is remembered on film, distasteful shots of flies landing on picnic tables conveniently edited out. In “A Coin,” a missile-fueled wartime romance between a pregnant Sarajevan and an American cameraman collapses when he leaves the country during a brief cease-fire. The sense is that he flees not to avoid fatherhood but because there is simply nothing left to shoot. The Sarajevan’s expatriate pen pal in Chicago (one of Hemon’s many analogues) takes Polaroids—of his room, his bed, his empty shoes—”to explore my absence, to find out how space and things appear when I’m not exerting my presence on them.”
Hemon fouls only when he loses his sense of humor, slipping occasionally into a melodramatic funk. When relating the story of an ancestor purported to be the first Bosnian beekeeper, in “Islands,” Hemon whines: “[T]he day he died, he asked to be taken to the bees….He sat by the hives for hours, and wept and wept, and wept out a sea of tears, and then they put him back into his bed and an hour later he died.”
What’s most striking about The Question of Bruno is that these moments are rarer than one would expect. Hemon retains a sense of perspective that has eluded many authors mapping genocide’s geography, finding a voice that borrows more from The Diary of Anne Frank than The Boys From Brazil. The obvious parallel can be drawn with Hemon’s Native American peer Sherman Alexie: These writers dive into a vicious, violent past and surface with a cacophony of stories for their readers’ consolation.
Still, Hemon will continue to labor under comparisons to other Eastern European greats and faces the unenviable title of “that guy writing about Bosnia.” When the would-be writer Jozef Pronek, another of Hemon’s literary doppelgangers, first arrives in Washington, D.C., he is all too politely asked what his trip was like by an uninterested American. In quiet protest of his loss of individuality—of the way he has been dismissed as just another foreigner, just another Bosnian, just another of Slobodan Milosevic’s ill-used exports—Pronek offers a literary allusion above his questioner’s head: “It was like Marlow’s journey to see Kurtz.”
Hemon’s trip upriver into the popular consciousness has stripped him to a sound bite. It will be interesting to see how he continues to navigate. CP