Love and Obstacles
by Aleksandar Hemon
Reviewed by Art Winslow
Wartime Sarajevo, Bosnia, early 1990s, as reported by a character in Aleksandar Hemon's novel The Lazarus Project: The electricity, out for months at a stretch, would return intermittently, bringing the lights and radios and televisions that had been left on suddenly to life. But the power grid aided the snipers and artillery batteries besieging the city, who "could pound us and kill us at night as well, picking out all the lit targets." And so, says Rora, a photographer, "We dreamt of light but hoped for darkness."
The siege of Sarajevo is the dark cloud that seems ever to drift through the atmosphere of Hemon's fiction, sometimes in the historical periphery, sometimes in the story's present on American television, sometimes in the adjustments of emigre life, casting its shadow on tales that might otherwise read as family comedy out to trace human foibles and -- what shall we call it? -- the existential oddity of being. He writes books of laughter and non-forgetting.
Biographical parallels with Hemon's personal history are inescapable (situations with writerly Bosnians of Ukrainian extraction who end up in Chicago), but readers should keep in mind that Hemon is bending light, so to speak, in service to fictional ends, and one of his major themes has always been the elusiveness of reality. The new collection, Love and Obstacles, has a wonderful story titled "The Bees, Part 1" in which the (unnamed) narrator's father borrows a Super 8 camera to make a home movie. When his mother asks what it will be about, the father replies, "The truth. Obviously."
The father, we are told, is "personally offended" by anything unreal, and nothing is more insulting than literature, for "the whole concept was a scam." Appalled after his son reads him a passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the father determines to write a "real" book of his own. So, we witness the pratfalls of trying to film reality (scripted). This is mixed with interjections from the father's incomplete book about reality, in which his recollection of family beekeeping includes sadly finding "a thick layer of dead bees glimmering in the grass," the intuitive correlation being to genocide. This leads him to comment, "This is life, struggle after struggle, loss after loss, endless torment."
The parents in "The Bees, Part 1," are refugees from Sarajevo who have settled in Canada while the son resides in Chicago. The eight stories in Love and Obstacles trace an arc from the 1980s and the narrator's teenage years, when Yugoslavia still existed as a unified whole, into the postwar near-present. Those who recall elements of Hemon's previous fiction -- his references to Joseph Conrad, the family's connection with beekeeping, the narrator's early yearnings to be a poet, the vacillation between seriousness and near spoofery -- will find them reprised here. Giving up his attempts at verse-making after being dismissed by a Bosnian poet of national renown in the story "The Conductor," Hemon's narrator confesses, "I didn't know what my poems were about, but I believed in them...felt that they attained a realm of human innocence and experience that was unknowable, even by me."
That sense of the unknowable suffuses Hemon's stories, and the opening one, "Stairway to Heaven," is a playful update of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Hemon's 16-year-old narrator is spending the summer in what was then Zaire with his family, where his father was posted as a Yugoslav diplomat. He is awakened by drums on this "perfect African night, straight out of Conrad." Hemon doesn't point out that when his narrator speaks of the drum sounds "hovering," and, "Whether it meant war, peace or prayer, I could not tell," it is a direct quotation of Conrad. This occurs a few times, sometimes identified and sometimes not. The drum racket in Kinshasa turned out to be the frenzied pounding of an American in a neighboring apartment, accompanying his tape of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
The aura of culture shock that inhabits the opening story -- even in the narrator's experience of his own family members, who seemed "not unlike hired actors mindlessly performing gestures of care and kinship" -- is carried throughout the collection, whether as part of the expatriate milieu or simply growing up. Thematic points often are reversed or replayed.
The family briefly reconvened in Sarajevo after the war, which "was beginning to feel like a depleted deja vu of our previous life," Hemon's narrator comments in the final story, "The Noble Truths of Suffering." Yet the story's tone is not one of elegy: It features a family dinner with a prizewinning American writer who is grilled by the narrator's parents in excruciatingly embarrassing fashion. Being interviewed about his own life in the previous story, "Death of the American Commando," Hemon's narrator had bridled at being interrupted: "I like to tell stories as I see fit," he said. Problematic as it is to conflate character assertions and authorial point of view, here, amid the light and dark, praying for neither but receiving them equally anyway, one hopes that is Hemon speaking for himself.
This review was originally published on chicagotribune.com. Art Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of The Nation.