Aleksandar Hemon moved to the U.S. from Bosnia in the early 1990s, prior to the siege of Sarajevo. He swiftly learned English and began writing, in his adopted language, stories about the traumas of immigrant experience and the pain of witnessing the war from his American exile. His impressive debut, The Question of Bruno
, may lack the fluency and imaginative élan of Kundera
and the linguistic density and sophistication of Conrad
(both of whom Hemon specifically invokes), yet these stories have a haunting power that lingers long after a first reading.
By turns tragic and darkly comic, the stories are a mixed bag in terms of style. They are unified, however, by theme. In "Islands," for example, a boy and his family visit their Uncle Julius on the island of Mljet, which is infested by the very mongooses that were imported to deal with the snake problem. Julius, veteran of a Stalinist prison camp, takes a stoical tack: "So that's how it is, he said, it's all one pest after another, like revolutions." And when the family returns to Sarajevo, they are greeted by their neglected, starved cat, shaking "with irreversible hatred." The hungry feline returns in another story, when we learn that Sarajevo under siege was filled with starving cats, which were eaten by starving dogs. If it's symbolism you're after, look no further.
One of the best stories, "The Sorge Spy Ring," wonderfully evokes a sad childhood spent in the shadow of Tito's cold war repressions. A man buys his son a portable telegraph set, and the two communicate in Morse code in the privacy of their own home--but later the father is arrested for espionage, and as Tito finally dies, he too languishes on his deathbed, weakly sucking a banana. The image is both poignant and pathetic. It's also the sort of tight close-up that Hemon loves (the camera and the television are dominant images, as one might expect from a writer who resorts to CNN to find out what's happening at home). There are moments when his language is slightly unidiomatic and offkey, as if he's leaned too heavily on a well-thumbed thesaurus. On the whole, though, this is an honest, vivid, and sometimes brilliant collection. --Jonathan Allison
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From Publishers Weekly
Much like his protagonist in the novella Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls, the cornerstone of this collection of eight stories, Hemon came to the U.S. as a tourist, but had to stay as a refugee when his native Yugoslavia splintered apart. The expertly wrought stories he has written since movingly set his characters' personal memories side by side with history's accidents, the guilt of exile sharing space with the horrors of war, in both straightforward narratives and border-erasing experiments. The constant themes of war and exile mingle most affectingly in "A Coin," in which a Sarajevan's letters detailing the day-to-day terror of the Yugoslavian conflictDwhat it's like to run the gauntlet of Sniper's Alley or to be unable to bury your dead safelyDreach an uneasy migr in the U.S. who feels eerily isolated from current events and the tides of history. History likewise erupts in "Islands," when a favorite uncle interrupts a family vacation to relate his boyhood experiences in Stalin's labor camps to a narrator not much older than he was then. Elsewhere, history footnotes fiction, as in the experimental "The Sorge Spy Ring," which juxtaposes a wryly compiled case file of an actual Soviet agent with a boy's fantasy of his father's spying for the U.S.S.R. Although Hemon's satiric vision of the U.S. in "Blind Jozef" (a shorter version was published in the New Yorker) is less fresh than that of his Titoist childhood, its portrait of a Bosnian writer marking time in a grungy, postmodern Chicago is wryly uncompromising. Generously endowed with pathos, humor and irony, and written in an off-balance, intoxicating English, this collection announces a talent reminiscent of the young Josef Skvorecky. Agent, Nicole Aragi at Watkins/Loomis. Major ad/promo; author tour. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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