A 21st century Conrad

June 5, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Love and Obstacles. Aleksandar Hemon; Riverhead Books, $32.50 cloth, 212 pp., 978-1-59448-864-1.

c26062The first sentence of “Stairway to Heaven,” the opening story in Aleksandar Hemon’s new collection, begins on “a perfect African night, straight out of Conrad.” The reference to Conrad is appropriate, not only in context, but because of Hemon’s own biography. Possessed of only a rudimentary command of the English language, Hemon left his native Sarajevo in 1992, travelling to Chicago for what he assumed would be a brief visit to the U.S. While he was away, however, war broke out in his home country, and Hemon was prevented from returning. Like Conrad, Hemon was in his twenties before he became fluent in English, which makes the extraordinary linguistic facility the author displays throughout his new collection all the more astonishing.

It’s worth quoting that opening paragraph in full:

It was a perfect African night, straight out of Conrad: the air was pasty and still with humidity; the night smelled of burnt flesh and fecundity; the darkness outside was spacious and uncarvable. I felt malarial, though it was probably just travel fatigue. I envisioned millions of millipedes gathering on the ceiling over my bed, not to mention a fleet of bats flapping ravenously in the trees under my window. The most troubling was the ceaseless roll of drums: the sonorous, ponderous thudding hovering around me. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer, I could not tell.

That Hemon writes with an uncommon suppleness is clear: how many other writers would characterize darkness as being “spacious and uncarvable”? But it’s useful also to note the sensuousness of the prose, the way it appeals to a reader’s sense of smell (“burnt flesh and fecundity”) and of touch (the air “pasty and still with humidity”). There’s a brute physicality to this language, an immediacy and incipient violence (which, in several instances throughout the collection, will erupt into actual violence).

Hemon’s relationship to the English language can perhaps be seen in the character of the father in “The Bees, Part 1,” himself a Serbian immigrant who drops out of his English class because he is “furious at the language that randomly distributed meaningless articles and insisted on having a subject in every stupid sentence.” Hemon’s own ferocity is evident in the way he tugs at language, constantly testing its elasticity. If he occasionally tugs too hard (the “ineluctable sadness of hotel rooms” in one story becomes “the crushing sadness of hotel rooms” in the next – it’s unclear whether this subtle change is meant as an indication of a shift in the narrator’s attitude, or if it’s merely a matter of a repeated image), he always manages to rein himself in before he reaches a breaking point.

Of course, it’s tempting to view everything about Love and Obstacles through the prism of the author’s own biography. The eight linked stories in the collection follow the growth of a narrator who, like Hemon, leaves Bosnia for Chicago, where he eventually becomes a writer. The collection’s title first appears as the title of a poem the young narrator pens in an early story, then reappears in a later story as the title of a piece of short fiction that the narrator publishes in The New Yorker (the magazine in which six of the book’s eight stories first appeared). But fact and truth – like biography – are slippery things in the hands of the fiction writer. The father in “The Bees, Part 1” has developed a “hatred of the unreal” and borrows a Super 8 camera from one of his coworkers so that he can shoot a biographical film about his life. When his wife asks him what the film will be about he replies, “The truth … Obviously.” In the father’s mind, fiction and truth are mutually exclusive; when the narrator gives his father a book called The Liar for his 45th birthday, “he read nothing of it but the title.”

But the father’s objection to fiction (“Not only that words – whose reality is precarious at best – were what it was all made from, but those words were used to render what never happened“) is incomplete, Hemon seems to be suggesting, because fiction has the unique ability to approach reality in a way that “the truth” cannot. The father writes a story entitled The Bees, Part 1, in which he relates the history of his grandfather’s apiary and the way the neighbours pillaged the family’s hives during the height of World War II:

They opened the hive and shook the bees off the frames. The bees were helpless: this was late October, it was cold, and they couldn’t fly or sting. They dropped to the ground in absolute silence: no buzz, no life; they all died that night.

This scene is recapitulated at the story’s end, when the narrator relates his family’s emigration from Bosnia to Canada, leaving 25 beehives behind. The family’s neighbours, “all drunken volunteers in the Serbian army,” descend on the hives and kick them over, and when the bees attempt to escape, “the neighbors [throw] a couple of hand grenades and [laugh] at the dead bees flying around as though alive.”

The massacre of the bees at the hands of “drunken volunteers in the Serbian army” is a fairly clear reference to the genocide in Bosnia during the infamous Siege of Sarajevo, an event which hangs over the entire collection like an albatross. Indeed, in “The Conductor,” the narrator confesses to feelings of “helplessness and guilt” as he watches images of the war being played out on his television from the safe confines of America. The narrator’s commingled feelings of dislocation and betrayal of his homeland pervade his time in the States, and finally find an ironic inversion in the final story, when he returns to Bosnia and invites a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist back to his parents’ home for a disastrous lunch. The novelist’s new book is about an American soldier in Iraq who is “dishonorably discharged for not corroborating the official story of the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl and her entire family,” an incident that is propagandized as “an unfortunate instance of miscommunication with local civilians.” The ex-soldier returns home, where he tells people not to believe what they read in the newspapers about the war. “‘We are tearing new holes in the ass of the world,’ he says, ‘We are breaking it open.'”

In his preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, Conrad wrote, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.” Hemon – Conrad’s literary descendant – wants, before all, to make you see. The fictional soldier in the novelist’s book – itself contained within a piece of fiction – is an instrument of truth. He is the avatar of Hemon’s sensibility, which is brave and clear, mordantly funny, and – above all – true.