Dark, dreamlike tales, with other shoes poised to fall

A. HEMON A. HEMON (Velibor Bo{Zcaron}Ovic)
By John Gregory Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2009

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“The dream involved danger, pain, and mystery, although there was also an encounter with a woman.’’ That one sentence, square in the middle of Aleksandar Hemon’s collection of linked stories, just about sums up this marvelous and original writer’s fiction, which again and again steers a hallucinatory path through dark and forbidding - but nevertheless enticing - terrain.

In the first story, the 16-year-old son of a minor Yugoslav diplomat careens through the streets of Zaire with a Led Zeppelin-loving American low-life named Spinelli as his guide. In the next story that boy is now 17 and is sent by train from Sarajevo to the Slovenian town of Murska Sobota to purchase a prized freezer chest for his family. Later, as war rages in Bosnia, the boy has grown into a man; he’s now an immigrant in Chicago surviving by selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. He is an aspiring writer who encounters in Iowa City Bosnia’s most celebrated poet, now living in exile, lonely, drunk, and ill. He is the author of the book we are reading, or maybe he isn’t. We aren’t ever told.

Hemon’s actual biography is itself incredible: He arrived in Chicago in 1992 just as his hometown of Sarajevo came under siege. He remained in the United States, began writing in English, and is now one of this country’s most celebrated writers, winner of a MacArthur Foundation “genius’’ grant and a finalist for last year’s National Book Award for his novel “The Lazarus Project.’’

Exactly to what extent “Love and Obstacles’’ is autobiographical, though, seems utterly beside the point, not simply for the reader but apparently for the author as well. He is interested in what the eye sees, how the chaos of the world is transformed into language. And it is indeed the quality of Hemon’s prose that is so striking; he writes with a peculiar grace, somehow both reckless and unflinching, both troublingly absurd and absolutely precise. He is forever alert to danger and menace, to the ways in which loss lurks at the periphery of lives until something - political upheaval or family conflict or plain bad luck - propels it squarely into view.

“The freezer chest arrived after seventeen days,’’ the narrator tells us at the conclusion of the story “Everything.’’ “We filled it to the brim: veal and pork, lamb and beef, chicken and peppers. When the war began in the spring of 1992, and electricity in the city of Sarajevo was cut, everything in the freezer chest thawed, rotted in less than a week, and then finally perished.’’

And drunk on the street with the famous Bosnian poet, the narrator describes “a woman in the kitchen window of one of the nearby houses. She was circling around something we could not see, a glass full of red wine in her hand. The snow was ankle-deep; we watched her, mesmerized: a long, shiny braid stretched down her back.’’

There’s a kind of quiet tension here and behind nearly every scene in these stories: Something’s going to happen, but we don’t know what it is. And there isn’t really a plot to guide us. Instead, there’s atmosphere; there’s foreboding: “Then he wandered and roamed in absurdly changing landscapes; he came across talking animals, including a dog from his childhood whom his father had killed with an ax blow to the head; there were more women, including his dead mother. Then he held a watermelon with the distorted face of someone he knew but could not recognize, and when it broke open, he found a letter addressed to him. He was just about to read it when he woke up.’’

Despite all this menace, despite Hemon’s insistence that we can never fully turn away from the world’s horrors, “Love and Obstacles’’ is most affecting when it examines the role of storytelling in our lives, the ways we turn to memory to make sense of experience. In “The Bees, Part 1’’ the narrator’s father mistrusts anything that is imagined, anything that is not real. “And nothing insulted him more than literature; the whole concept was a scam. Not only that words - whose reality is precarious at best - were what it was all made from, but those words were used to render what never happened.’’

Despite the father’s lack of progress in his quest to tell a true story - the narrator finds him “snoring on the couch with his notebook on his chest and a pencil with a broken tip on the floor, the only words written: Many years ago.’’ - he refuses to give up. The very real and serious pleasure to be derived from “Love and Obstacles’’ is that it reminds us, through its exquisite prose, through its author’s grand imagination, that we don’t have a choice, that in the end, no matter how painful or dark, the story must be told.

John Gregory Brown is the author of the novels “Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery’’ and “Audubon’s Watch.’’ He teaches at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

By Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead, 210 pp., $25.95

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