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Love and Obstacles

by Aleksandar Hemon

As the Serbian blockade of his native Sarajevo began in 1992, Aleksandar Hemon, a visitor to the US, found himself stranded in Chicago.

In this, his second collection of short stories, Hemon’s narrator just happens to be a young Bosnian writer living in Chicago who confesses “I felt helplessness and guilt as I watched the destruction of my hometown on TV; I lived in America.” In these stories he tells of episodes from his life in Slovenia, Chicago and even a period in Africa. We are introduced to the narrator’s family, friends and a host of some pretty unsavoury characters in accounts of adolescence, war and even beekeeping. These stories are often shocking, very funny and sad, focussing on displacement (his own to the US and his parents to Canada) and life as an outsider.

It’s not overstatement to compare Hemon’s writing with that of Nabokov. To write in a language that isn’t your first and to express it so originally as your own is a truly Nabokovian achievement. It’s this wonderful use (and description) of language that is at the heart of the stories. In ‘Everything’ he describes two fellow travellers’ voices on a train journey to Zagreb: “one of them was mine-deep and spoke with a southern Serbian accent; the other was mumbly and uttered the words with the inflections of a Sarajevo thug, soft consonants further softened, the vowels stuck in the gullet.”

I particularly liked ‘Szmura’s Room’ about Bogdan a young Ukranian from Bosnia arriving to start life in the US. Szmura, offers him a space (it can’t be called a room) in his apartment. It is life on the margins and a host of good-for-nothings come and go in the apartment while Bogdan looks on with bewilderment. He tells our narrator: “You will never know what you escaped. You will never know how lucky you are” and he goes on to describe the horrors of the war, unspeakable things, people forced into minefields - and worse, and how he had to bury his parents in their own backyard. “It is painful to remember what you cannot forget”. Bogdan’s revelations just increase the narrator’s sense of guilt and he says, “After that, I avoided him for years.”

The short story is the perfect medium for the telling of these tales that Hemon infuses with energy, wit and spirit. He is a brilliant storyteller.

Irene Haynes

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