As I briefly mentioned last week when the National Book Award nominees were announced, Aleksandar Hemon left Sarajevo for America in 1992, getting out just before the worst of the Yugoslavian ethnic wars really began. He hadn’t planned on staying, but by the time he was ready to go back there wasn’t all that much to entice his return. He needed cash, so he took some menial jobs and began to learn English.
He was a writer in his native language, and later became a commended writer in English. The comparison with Nabokov is emphasized a bit much in the readings I’ve done about Hemon, but I did see an interesting comment on the two. Nabokov traveled in well-educated circles, whereas Hemon was a canvasser for Greenpeace, and learned English by speaking to all sorts of people one meets when knocking on doors. I haven’t read enough of either author to really weigh in here, but I would say there is a sort of gritty realism in Hemon that is absent in Nabokov.
The Question of Bruno collects many of the short stories Hemon wrote in the late 90s. Like most early works of fiction, even my own, the stories here seem to draw heavily from his own experiences, particularly his childhood growing up in a Ukrainian/Bosnian household and his struggles as a Bosnian refugee trying to make it in America. His prose seems foreign yet familiar. The second-language aspect only really noticeable when he (purposefully) uses a phrase in an abnormal way to call attention his characters’ perceptions of the American world.
‘Exchange of Pleasant Words’ is a fictional memoir of the Hemon family history and a Hemon family reunion of sorts. ‘Inspired by the success of the Sarajevo Olympiad and the newly established ancient family history, the family council, headed righteously by my father, decided to have an epic get-together, which was to be held only once, and was to be recorded as the Hemoniad.’ The story also lays the foundation for various characters named Hemon to pop up all over this book; in many cases the reader is unsure of any relation.
‘Blind Josef Pronek & Dead Souls,’ is a novella that seems a thinly veiled story of the author’s circumstances arriving in America. Though it does display Hemon’s skill with prose, I often found myself bored as I made my way through it. The story is episodic in nature, but even some of the episodes seem to fall flat. I’ve also read that Pronek is the protagonist in Nowhere Man, Hemon’s first novel, and that is a bit troublesome for I do not know if I want to read an entire novel focused on this character.
‘The Sorge Spy Ring’ is an interesting tale of a boy whose imagination about spies hits close to home when his own father is taken. But longer than the actual story are massively long footnotes that did little to add any further meaning. These footnotes concern the life of Sorge and provide an overall biography of the man. The constant interruptions hurt this story greatly.
In addition, a photograph placed before the first page of each story served to set the tone. Some were incredibly well selected, like the photo of Archduke Ferdinand just before his assassination, and where in the background you can see a man holding an accordian that is prominent in the story. Others, only seem to be distantly related and therefore the device loses effect. I know that Hemon uses photographs extensively in The Lazarus Project, and this being an interest of mine will likely lead me to this novel before too long.
Hemon is a gifted writer, and his strange but interesting prose is worth looking at in TheQuestion of Bruno. But I have read later short stories that I found much more palatable. One thinking of trying Hemon might want to search for some more recent short fiction by the Bosnian-American.