Hemon, Aleksandar.

New York: Vintage International, 2000
ISBN # 0-375-72700-0.
7 short stories, 230 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2005

In this book of dark short stories Aleksandar Hemon presents himself to me as a major talent. First at the purely literary level his ability at describing people, places and their worlds is extraordinary.

At a family reunion party his grandfather asks for a moment of silence. The young 15 year old Alexander describes the scene:

I can attest there was a moment of comprehensive silence – a fly was heard buzzing stubbornly against a window pane; fire crackling in the stove; someone’s bowels disrespectfully grumbled…

In another story where much of the action is in Sarajevo during the recent war, some people are hiding in an old theater where little has been disturbed. Hemon writes: “There are still several cameras in the studio with their lenses turned toward the floor, looking between their wheels, as if ashamed.”

Another example of this gifted descriptive ability is a scene in a park:

I’d sit there and watch everything throb with being, and listen to the hodgepodge of noises. Often, I would see an old man, wearing an aging pair of sandals and a straw hat, walking higgledy-piggledy across the street, throwing his arms around, shoulders leaping, as if he were exploding in a series of unstoppable hiccups, twitching his head back, and forth, making one step forward, and then one step back. It would take him a long time to get from the corner of our street to the entrance of his building. I would see his face, flashes of cramps and helpless grins, as if he was perpetually surprised by pain—I knew he couldn’t help it—always on the verge of falling down. I would watch him and his long hobbling journey home, and I wondered why that was happening to him and not to me. Years later, I would learn he had a debilitating disease that breaks down old people, but he was long gone by then, having left just a memory of his stubborn straw hat, which would never fall off his quaking head. I would only sometimes see his wife—an obese, tired woman— walking a black poodle, which would stop now and then, oblivious to the limp leash, and, after some retching cough out a clot of brownish sludge.

A second captivating factor in Hemon’s literary abilities skills is the darkness of his images. In the opening story a nine year old boy visits the island of Mljet, a island near Dubrovnik which has two salt lakes. His family visits with relatives and the boy relates the activities of his visit.

The story is simple and could be any child’s vacation. What is different is the language in which the author relates the story. It is heavily leaded with pessimistic and negative images which are not typical of most 9 year old vacationers. The islands are like “car wrecks by the road;” his uncle’s greeting kiss is “like a slug.” On the ship they take to get there he notes the “snot-green sea.” The family travels a “sinuous road exuding heat.”

It seems this negativity and pessimism is rooted in the culture and family. His uncle claims: “Life is nothing if not a succession of evils.”

One morning the boy wakes saying: “I got up, out of my nonbeing, and stepped into the inchoate day.” That day he describes the brutal killing of a mongoose by a neighbor’s dog at the neighbor’s behest.

The narrator himself takes no discursive stand on this negativity, but uses the images. It is his uncle who articulates the harshest view. At school in his youth he discovered what life was:

I figured out then that life is a circle, you get back right where you started if you get to be a hundred and fifty-eight years old, It’s like a dog a chasing its own tail, all is for naught. We live and live, and in the end we’re just like this boy [he pointed at me], knowing nothing, remembering nothing. You might as well stop living now, my son. You might just as well stop, for nothing will change.

Even the ending echoes the general pessimism. They arrive home to find all their plants had died – a neighbor who was to water them died of a heart attack and the plants had no water.

The darkness of images is related to the second feature of Hemon’s writing I found so rich – the intellectual and experiential world from which his writing flows. He grew up in Bosnia in a family with a long history of struggle and oppression. Then the Bosnian war, and especially the siege of Sarajevo (which he watched on TV in Chicago) deeply seared his consciousness and vision.

Hemon’s world is not one of sweetness, light and ease. Rather, his world is a dark harsh place where the greatest dangers facing us are other humans. There is a strong echo of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Hell is other people,” but perhaps even more terrifying since these others are not just the individual “others” of Existentialism, but the “other” as organized state and other institutional sources of hatred and evil.

Alexander Hemon is a voice crying from the depths, frightened, hiding, usually alone, painfully aware of being OTHER.

He offers no hope or solutions. He chronicles the IS as he experiences it, not as he conceives it.

The American reader is confronted with dissidence on all sides – the world is not seen from the comfort and ease of the American middle class; the world doesn’t exist for the utility of Americans. This is the world of the immigrant “new” American yet still “other” in the heartland of the U.S.

Alexsander Hemon’s stories are not to be missed, and I will be watching for and hoping for even more extended pieces of fiction from this marvelous and sensitive writer.

Bob Corbett


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