Monday, April 27, 2009

Aleksandar Hemon's "Love and Obstacles"--English as a Second Language, and the Writer as Drinker

Aleksandar Hemon, born in Sarajevo, came to America in 1992 on a cultural visa as a twenty-eight-year-old journalist. Scheduled to return to Bosnia on the day the Yugoslav army began shelling his home town, he was granted political asylum and settled down in Chicago, taking jobs as a dishwasher and sandwich maker and trying to learn English by making lists of words from the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov.

Three years after his arrival in the U.S. he started publishing stories in English in such places as The New Yorker and Granta and getting them chosen for Best American Short Stories. When his collection The Question of Bruno appeared in 2000, he received rave reviews and was compared to famous European authors, such as Joseph Conrad and Nabokov, who wrote brilliantly in English.

Jozef Pronek, a Hemon alter ego, was introduced in a novella-length story in The Question of Bruno entitled “Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls,” a story about a Bosnian immigrant who comes to think of himself as a cartoon character, a dog, a detective, a madman. (Pronek is not blind; the title of the story comes from the name of the rock band he established in Bosnia, derived from a blind American blues singer.) In Nowhere Man, his highly anticipated first novel, Hemon traces Pronek’s life back to its beginnings in Sarajevo, recounts his youthful coming-of-age, and details his efforts to make a new home in America.

While he was working on his second novel The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008, Hemon was apparently also writing eight short stories, six of which appeared in The New Yorker, and now released in his new book Love and Obstacles, due out in May from Riverhead Books.

I have been reading Hemon’s stories from the beginning. I even read Nowhere Man, although I must confess I have not read The Lazarus Project.

Since English is a fairly recent second language for Hemon, his vocabulary is sometimes strangely formal (as when he uses the word “masticates” instead of “eats” for the simple act of eating a sandwich), or self-consciously poetic (as when he tells the reader to “wipe the misty windshield of memory”). Hemon has said that he chooses words in terms of the sound and the rhythm they make rather than in terms of plausibility.

I am a little leery of Hemon’s work, for I think, like Ha Jin, he was greeted in America so enthusiastically for reasons extrinsic to his art. First, he was called “remarkable” because he began publishing in English only three years after beginning to learn English as his second language. And second, he began publishing during the war in Bosnia, when there was much publicity about the atrocities there and thus was touted as “a new voice” of Bosnia.

O.K., fair enough. But now that he has been writing in English for over a dozen years, it seems to me that the steam surrounding him for his “remarkable” grasp of English and his “new voice” should simmer down a little; it is time that he either make it on his own or not make it at all.

Maybe I am just too cynical about the press release hype surrounding authors who represent “new voices” from previously unrepresented countries or cultures, as if they were indeed the voice of their people. I know this sells books, and why the hell write if you can’t sell books? But I think a writer’s work should stand on its own merits.

The publishers are promoting Love and Obstacles as a “linked” collection of stories, in hopes that the public will think it is “novelistic,” whatever that means, treating the stories as chapters. I have already expressed my cynicism about this tactic. As I never tire of saying, I think a story should have the integrity to stand on its own and be appreciated as a short story, not as something to hurry through to get on to the next chapter.

I just finished reading Hemon's new collection of stories, Love and Obstacles. I guess what bothers me about Hemon is the autobiographical persona he creates in these stories. It is the same persona we met in Bruno and met again in Nowhere Man. At this point, the new stories seem too much “twice-told.” The Hemon alter ego is just getting a little tiresome, especially since in most every story, whether he is a teenager or a wanna-be writer, he ends up getting drunk.

In “Stairway to Heaven,” at age 16, he is introduced to getting drunk; in “Everything,” at age 17, he is sent off to the city with his parents’ hard-earned money to buy a freezer and ends up giving away part of the money because he gets drunk. In “Conductor,” he gets drunk while at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with a famous Bosnian writer, and in “The Novel Truths of Suffering,” he introduces himself as a writer who has published a short story entitled “Love and Obstacles” in The New Yorker and gets drunk with an American Pulitzer Prize winning writer who is visiting Bosnia.

I like a drink as much as the next person, but Hemon's continual presentation of the writer as a hard drinker just bores me after a while. If anyone out there has any thoughts about the cliche of writer as drinker and where the hell it started, I would appreciate hearing from you. If you have read any of Hemon's work and want to weigh in on me for not thinking he is the greatest thing to hit these shores since Ha Jin, then please have at it. It is more fun writing this blog when I get a reaction.


sandy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becky said...

I guess Hemingway is the supreme writer as drinker. Perhaps a writer hopes to place himself in the category of Hemingway, and in general, of the Outsider, by having a character (one that the reader closely aligns with the writer) get liquored up now and again. But perhaps too, it's a strategy, or perhaps a cheat, pushing the story to a crescendo with a character's binge drinking/snorting/toking session. I know, because I've done it (I mean with a story!).
And then maybe it's just a way for writers (bookish, generally introverted, and frankly quite boring) to give themselves a little bit of street cred.
I have read only one of Hemon's stories, and I recall that I enjoyed reading all the details of a foreign world (foreign to me). But I didn't read it with a very critical eye, and I didn't know that he was making such a big literary splash.
Have you read David Bizmosgis? I don't mean to lump them into the Eastern European category, but I really love his short story collection Natasha, and I felt that the quality of his stories warranted the praise they were receiving.
Like Sandy, I'm a bit behind in my reading here. I'm still in February.
I just received "The Expendables" and am slowly working my way through it. My feelings about the collection are mixed (well, I just started it). The stories feel a bit unfinished. Perhaps this was largely her MFA work? Still, I very much liked "Affair Lite." I've just started the title story.

Anonymous said...

Opulently I assent to but I think the list inform should prepare more info then it has.

Anonymous said...

I have the same concerns with Hemon but "The Lazarus Project" throws them all to the wind. It is truly a great work. Please take the time to read it. You will not be disappointed.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to read this. I read 'Nowhere Man' some years ago and liked it but I tried to read it again recently and I found his oddly self-conscious vocabulary getting in the way. I haven't read The Lazarus Project.