The Question of Bruno
Stories by Aleksander Hemon.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Peter Ho Davies.
The stunning stories in this first collection by Bosnian exile Aleksander Hemon achieve the remarkable and delicate feat of being at once strikingly diverse in setting, style, and period, and subtly and sinuously intertwined. They range in space from a sniper's alley in Sarajevo to a fast-food eatery in Chicago, and in time from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to the shattered streetscapes of the former Yugoslavia as broadcast on CNN. Along the way, Hemon proves himself a gymnastically versatile stylist, as comfortable with an epistolary story as pseudo-memoir, hyperrealism, or postmodern playfulness.
The keystone of the collection is the novella "Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls," which opens autobiographically with a Bosnian exchange visitor stranded in America by the outbreak of war at home. There's a broad vein of sturdy satire at work in Pronek's observations of the U.S. ("Small bowl -- large gumbo. Big bowl -- jumbo gumbo," as the manager of a restaurant where he finds work explains), but the real pleasure of the story is the opportunity it provides for Hemon's subversive descriptive gifts. Landing at JFK, we are told Pronek "roved all over the airport, imagining that it had the shape of John Kennedy's supine body, with his legs and arms outstretched, and leech-like airplanes sucking its toes and fingers." The image is comic, bizarre (appropriately for the disoriented and jetlagged Pronek), and grimly morbid. Later, taken to the unkempt apartment of an American woman, Pronek finds "on the kitchen table a mob of beer bottles with their labels ripped off, as if the stout bottles had been tormented
and were now awaiting execution." Continually -- here, as in "The Coin," which interweaves the stories of a woman who has stayed in Sarajevo and a Pronek-like figure who has escaped to the States -- the images of war find mundane but bleakly absurd outlets in the U.S. As the woman in Sarajevo discusses how best to run the gauntlet of snipers, the young man in America becomes adept at ambushing cockroaches. A profound undercurrent of dislocation, the exile's paradoxical guilt at leaving and longing for home, runs through both stories.
Hemon, however, is not content to simply chart the contemporary crisis in the Balkans. In tales like "Islands" and "The Sorge Spy Ring," he draws together family and national stories -- in the former charting an uncle's experience in Stalin's gulags, and in the latter imagining a father as a Soviet spy under Tito's regime (while simultaneously tracing the historical espionage career of one Richard Sorge in footnotes). In "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders," he speculates in fantastical biography; and in "The Accordion," an extraordinarily vivid fragment of a story, he conjures the last moments of the Archduke Ferdinand in luminous (and, as he admits in an authorial afterword, shamelessly fictitious) detail.
These stories are held together by a loose amalgam of recurring minor characters and images, but more importantly by a pervasive sense (by turns tragic and darkly comic) of history, both personal and global. While the recent conflicts in the Balkans take center stage in the collection's most viscerally powerful stories, the effect of the collection is to feelingly humanize and contextualize the current crisis.
Hemon has been compared to an array of different writers, including Nabokov, Conrad, Kosinski, and Kundera (a list to which Borges might be usefully added), but on this evidence his will very soon be a reputation that others aspire to.
Peter Ho Davies is the author of the collections Equal Love
and The Ugliest House in the World.
He is on the faculty of the M.F.A. program at the University of Michigan.