In a long, autobiographical story in Aleksandar Hemon’s new collection Love and Obstacles (Riverside Books), the narrator offers a portrait of his father, for whom “a perfect world consisted of objects you could hold in your hand.”
Such a perfect world is meaningful to readers who recognize when a piece of writing is so finely wrought it feels as though it can be held in your hand and looked at from many angles. The novel that best fits this description is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Its scenarios, its voice, the flavour of its melancholic view of 1920s America bears repeated reading.
Of the eight stories in Love and Obstacles, one or two rise to this level, while the rest tend to ramble and shift abruptly in tone. Remarkably, most of the collection’s contents appeared in The New Yorker, the best short story venue available in English for many decades. There, J.D. Salinger presented his long masterpieces Franny and Zooey, while, since the 1950s, work by John Cheever, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro has presented the novelistic possibilities of the short story.
The two longest pieces in Love and Obstacles that stand a chance against their New Yorker competition are called The Noble Truths of Suffering and The Bees, Part 1. The former is a bitter portrait of contemporary Sarajevo through the eyes of an ex-Sarajevan who has returned from his American writing life for a visit. Even better is The Bees, Part 1, which mines a vein well handled by other central European writers of the postwar period, including Danilo Kis and Bohumil Hrabal. These writers share with Hemon an ironic view of adolescence spent under Soviet regimes, along with an even further backward glance at the lives of ancestors who witnessed the devastation of World War II.
The Bees, Part 1 uses the narrator’s father’s autobiographical writings to trace the role of beekeeping from before World War I until the collapse of Bosnia into civil war and fratricidal killing. Hemon applies a motif familiar from the work of Kafka and Bruno Schulz, where ancestral figures, especially fathers in the work of male writers, take on mythical, even phantasmagoric shapes. The narrator receives his father’s report on living with bees in “a manila envelope with another envelope inside, on which was written, in a dramatic cursive, ‘The Bees, Part 1.’ I have to confess that my hands trembled as I flipped through it, as if I were unrolling a sacred scroll, uncovered after a thousand years of sleep.”
The father’s appreciation of his ancestry, and his sense of a world destroyed needlessly, comes sharply into focus in the course of the story. His later years are spent in Hamilton, Ont., where he lives a diminished cliché of an immigrant’s life. From his high-rise window he can see “piles of snow, the smokestacks of the Hamilton steel mills, and a vacant parking lot. It was all black and white and bleak and grey, like an existentialist European movie… He started despairing as soon as he set foot on Canadian soil: he didn’t know where they had landed, how they were going to live and pay for food and furniture… And it was perfectly clear to him that he would never learn the English language.”
The narrator’s parents play a role in The Noble Truths of Suffering, but in this story they are farcical rather than tragic figures. Having brought a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author to their home for a Bosnian luncheon feast, the narrator discovers, months later, that his parents appear as recognizable ironic victims in one of the famous American’s stories. In The Noble Truths of Suffering, Hemon allows himself a rare expression of love for his once-hometown, Sarajevo: “But what about the Gazi Husrevbegova fountain, whose water tastes like no other in the world? What about all the minarets lighting up simultaneously at sunset on a Ramadan day? And the snow falling slowly, each flake coming down patiently, separately…” Of his American compatriot, the narrator wonders, “What did he think of Sarajevo? Did he like it? Could he see how beautiful it had been before it became this cesspool of insignificant, drizzly suffering?”
Hemon’s characters, almost to the last man, exist in this space of resentment over losses both personal and ancestral. The most common tone in Love and Obstacles is a corrosive expression of disdain for almost everything. It is not this alone that makes Hemon a challenging read. Again and again the reader encounters awkward phrasing that may be meant to convey the temper of disjointed lives, but simply reads badly. An apartment is said to look “hollow, devoid of all these crumbles of a lived life that lead you back home.” Stairs are said to squeak “with untroddenness.” Again and again one wonders why Hemon’s editors felt these sorts of oddities were the best way to bring across the difficult lives at the centre of Love and Obstacles.
Norman Ravvin’s forthcoming novel from Gaspereau Press is The Joyful Child. He is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.