Aleksandar Hemon by Jenifer Berman

BOMB 72 Summer 2000
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Aleksandar Hemon. Photo by Sa Schloff. Courtesy of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.

Caught between the hard facts and soft focus of the past, his debut collection, The Question of Bruno, exists in a disarming demilitarized zone, a place where history can’t decide what to make of itself. Set in and around his native Sarajevo, his stories struggle with a world abruptly changing, and his characters—a boy who suspects his father is a Soviet spy, a young woman caught in the siege, a down-on-his-luck émigré writer watching the conflict on TV—quickly come to understand how mutable the truth can be.

Considering his background—a former journalist and writer, Hemon emigrated to the States in 1991—this world of unpredictability is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that his literary discovery would be the stuff of movies. Imagine ( close up ): a young émigré writer toils away learning English in a cold-water flat in Chicago, the El train rattling above. Wandering from one mind-numbing job to another—kitchen worker, bicycle messenger, bookstore clerk—he is finally admitted to a master’s program in literature at Northwestern University. Soon, he begins penning short stories (in English) and falls in love with his colleague, a fellow writer and teacher. They are married, of course (wide shot of altar), and one day he sends off a story to an Illinois literary magazine, where the editor plucks it from the stack of unsoliciteds, firmly planting our young writer on the road to success.

Such is the story (but remember, in Hemon’s work you never quite know what to believe). In this case, however, what is true is that Hemon is a world class talent. Oft compared to Nabokov, and not solely because he writes in an adopted language, Hemon’s pitch-perfect diction and virtuosic command of the English language are shocking only in that you wish others wrote so well, and with such zeal for formal challenge. Not one to shy away from structural maneuverings, a number of Hemon’s stories are told in fragments, while others include entire narratives written in footnotes.

It would be easy to categorize The Question of Bruno as “war literature”—doesn’t Bosnia need a Catch 22 or a Meditations in Green or even a Going After Cacciato?—but that would be a considerable disservice. These stories are much more than shocking reports or tragic testimonials. And although they may at times bear witness to a murderous conflict, they also speak much more broadly to the perseverance, and perplexity, of the human spirit.

Jenifer BermanMany of your stories—“Islands,” “Alphonse Kauders,” “A Coin”—are structurally disjointed or fragmented. Seeing as you’re a native of Sarajevo, people may want to suggest that this refers to the factious political and cultural situation in your homeland. Is that the case?

Aleksandar Hemon To say that the fragmented structure of my stories is due to the breakup of Yugoslavia would be just too neat, even if it were true. I began writing the Alphonse Kauders story in 1988, long before the big breakup of the Soviet Union, and consequently, the breakup of the world that was organized around a USA-USSR binary—so many people around the world have witnessed fragmentation. Besides, fragments have been around forever—the Bible consists almost entirely of fragments and disjointed parts. Recall the 18th-century cabinets of wonders, a lot of little disjointed things put together to be marveled at. Remember T. S. Eliot whining in The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” dreaming of the perfect order, ending up, practically, a fascist.

Fragments are yesterday’s news, but what is relatively new is the sense that the transcendence—the original order of things—is gone. I am inclined to believe there never was a transcendental order, there never was an original unity that was fucked up by history or the masses or what have you. Fragments are always the order of the day, it is only a question of organizing them, if they need to be organized at all. My preferred way of organizing them is to have them juxtaposed, feeding off or contradicting one another, reveling in discontinuities, producing noise—the models for that being film and popular music, particularly hip-hop and all that came out of it. The story of the original good unity is a big ruse that tended to work for the privileged classes. I think that those who are pursuing either the good old order or the new order tend to be conservative if not totalitarian. I have anarcho-liberal proclivities, living in a fragmented world doesn’t bother me, as long as fragments get to hang out together a bit every once in a while. What I am saying is that the fragmentation of my stories is a legitimate strategy and it does not require being justified by a great tragedy.

JB Your stories speak to this flexibility—or to the reinterpretive values of history, so to speak. The world you grew up in, the Yugoslavia of Tito, is gone. History, in such a short period of time, seems to have abandoned the world you knew.

AH The demise of Tito’s Yugoslavia does not bother me—I feel no nostalgia for it or my life in it—apart from remembering my childhood. There is an assumption behind your statement: that the choice was between Tito’s Yugoslavia and the murderous nationalism of the current Yugoslavia. But there have always been democratic alternatives, one of which was a peaceful breakup resulting in a few neighboring, democratic states or a loose confederation. At one point or another, many of us in Bosnia or the former Yugoslavia worked, and are still working for those alternatives. In 1991, I was working for a magazine in Sarajevo when the first demonstrations in Belgrade against Milosevic took place and we were in daily contact with people who were fighting to bring the bastard down. I still write a biweekly column for this magazine, Dani, which actively lobbies for a more democratic, non-nationalist Bosnian government. My sister, for instance, is right now in Sarajevo, (although with a Canadian passport), fighting Bosnian kleptocracy.

Perhaps the demise of the world that I knew doesn’t bother me all that much because it took place as I was becoming a mature person, breaking away from the safety of my childhood and adolescence.

Let me clarify something. Though I would be more than happy to see the current Bosnian government go down, as I would be ecstatic to see Milosevic gone, they are not all the same to me. Theoretically, all nationalisms are equally repugnant to me, and all states of former Yugoslavia bear some responsibility for what happened, but to equate Bosnia and Milosevic’s Yugoslavia is to equate the victim and the criminal. The war in Bosnia was not a civil war—it was a genocide or at least a genocide attempt against Bosnians—the Muslim part of the population.

JB I certainly wasn’t proposing that Tito’s totalitarianism was a preferable alternative. Perhaps more that the current murderous nationalism of the region has—at least for much of the media-saturated world—nearly obliterated a memory of that era, whether that memory was tinged with nostalgia or not. I say this because in many of your stories, there is a wistful, almost fleeting sense that something is forever gone.

AH Something is always forever gone, but on occasion you get something in return. In fact, most things are forever gone, once they are gone. I guess one of the human instincts necessary for survival makes you somehow cover the losses; maybe it’s the same instinct that prevents you from being able to imagine your own death. Were we able to imagine the nothingness at the end, or the suffering just before it, we would be paralyzed. So living with a loss is necessary. My personal losses were relatively small, but imagine someone who lost 15 members of their family, was raped and then moved to, say, Chicago and works there packing grocery bags in a supermarket. Now, that’s something to deal with. Yet people live, and go on.

The genocide notwithstanding, it seems to me that almost every social human who goes through what could be called individualization experiences the loss of the protection that he or she had as a child, the loss of the sense of things being unified. The loss is irreversible. On the other hand you might get some social agency as a mature person in return—not to mention sex. I mean, you lose something, but then you get a lot of fun things and responsibilities—you get to shape the world a little, as it were. I think you can deal with the loss (let’s say it’s a biggie) in at least two ways: you can pity yourself, mourning the absences, thinking of your life as a past potentiality; or you can examine the loss so as to assess your present position, work with what you’ve got, live your life as an actuality. A lot of people from Bosnia have done the latter, even if they needed therapeutic attention for a while.

There is a program at the University of Illinois in Chicago designed to help Bosnians get over their war traumas by giving testimonies. They’ve recorded a large number of these testimonies about the war and the genocide in Bosnia, using them both as a way not to forget, to record people’s experiences, and also as a therapeutic device. A friend of mine worked there, interviewing people, and she told me about a woman who had gone through hell; her hometown was pillaged and destroyed by Serbian forces. As this woman was trying to escape the attack, going down desolate streets, mayhem everywhere, she saw a horse standing in front of a shoe store, not moving, looking at its reflection in the store window. In the midst of all that destruction, there was a horse admiring its own beauty, and she saw that and remembered it. Maybe she was storing it for the future. Maybe she couldn’t help assuming that there would be a future, that there would be people to tell this story to.

JB Yes, stories. Speaking of history, in the “Sorge Spy Ring,” you use a definition from the first Encyclopedia Britannica, circa 1769, that says history is “a description or recital of things as they are, or have been, in a continued orderly narration of the principal facts and circumstances thereof… .” A more contemporary source, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, ninth edition, circa 1991, defines it first as a “tale, a story.” In today’s world, which is more legitimate—truth, or fiction?

AH It is very dangerous to equate history and fiction, for you might end up claiming that the Holocaust is fiction, and, God help us, it is not. History is not fiction, or at least it shouldn’t be. On the other hand, to claim that history is a simple representation of “truth” is almost equally dangerous. Then, for example, the absence of African-Americans, until very recently, from the official American histories—the stories of great white men—would be legitimized. I mean they were absent only because the history was largely a set of stories told by white men about white men. Both history and fiction have to be narrated, and it matters a lot who the narrators are and what the conditions of narration are. The way to put it is that history and fiction are continuous, they flow into each other, and the overlapping zone—the exchange zone—is the most interesting and the most dangerous. The unclear borders between fiction and history are of the utmost political importance, because both history and fiction provide models to organize the practice of human life, to order the material experience of human beings—all of it historical at some level—the only question being what details are chosen. This is where fragments, or details, come back into play—the more remote history is from material practices, the fewer random details it contains, the more fictitious it is.

What fiction can do then is to historicize itself at the level of the detail, to slap history in the face and bring it down to where people live.

JB In your “notes” to “Alphonse Kauders,” you introduce the Encyclopedia of the USSR with the somewhat wry testimonial that “this great book teaches us how the verisimilitude of fiction is achieved by the exactness of the detail.” You use these details, or disassociated facts—his pornographic proclivities, his hatred of horses, the sound of his farts—to document Alphonse Kauders’ life. What, then, is the best way of documenting who a person actually is?

AH Well, it depends what and why you are documenting and what you want from a person. I mean if you are a corporation, the only documentation, the only history that matters is a person’s credit history. If you ask me to state what the best way to record human existence is, you ask me to make a political value statement, so here it is: I think that capitalism abstracts human beings by working to reduce them to consumers or passive “citizens” participating only in polls, by depriving them of their bodies, by infusing them with a normalized psychology and an isolated selfhood engaged only with itself, rather than with other people. A lot of fiction, let alone history, is complicit in that. What constitutes a person, I think, are material practices, the way a body engages with other bodies, the details of material existence, the language produced in public space exchanges, that kind of stuff. I mean, if you tried to remember a person from long ago, what would you remember? You would remember their body in a space at a particular time, their voices and grimaces, their language, and then you would construct a narrative around it, with the help of other people’s testimonies—this is how history is created, I think, except the body might disappear at some point. And how would you remember yourself?

I read once that Zulfikar Al Bhutto, the Pakistani prime minister who was arrested in a military coup and kept in solitary confinement (eventually he was executed) spent his time—endless time—choosing a particular day in his life and then trying to remember everything that happened that day. The futility of that project is terrifying to me. I imagine that he repeatedly failed, for he was not the same person as he was on that day, waiting to die in solitary confinement. The biggest question is: how could he discern between memory, history and fiction? And did he really need to? Of course, the fact that he was in solitary confinement is crucial, for had he been out, he would have consulted a large number of books, friends (and enemies), testimonies, pictures and smells and sounds that could trigger his memory.

JB One of your narrators says, “I believed in the apparent, and I trusted books. I was ten.” Do you? Now?

AH No. But I love books more then ever. Because I learned that books don’t represent “truth.” Rather they open a space, a public space, in which that truth can be negotiated. With books you are never alone, never isolated.

JB Another character says, “Perhaps art is one of the last pockets of resistance to chaos. And then again, maybe it isn’t.” What do you believe?

AH Well, I’ve written that but I put it in the mouth of Alphonse Kauders, who ain’t exactly a moral or political role model. Chaos is the opposite of order, which would mean that art is orderly, and I don’t like that kind of stuff. I think art should be disorderly, a little confusing, with loose ends and odd corners sticking out. It should not provide an alternative to a disorderly world, but drag you into it, help you understand it and live in it. Kafka said that a book should be an ax for the frozen sea within us.

My wife was in a graduate English class with a bunch of people from a creative writing program and they were reading Ulysses. And somehow a story came up: Joyce was dictating, Beckett was taking notes, and then someone knocked at the door and Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Then he realized what happened and asked Joyce whether he should cut it, Joyce said, “No, leave it in,” and it was left in. This bothered the creative writing people to no end—this chaotic intrusion of quotidian practice into art. They wanted to think that a writer, an artist, plans — orders — things and then you have art resisting the chaos. But someone just walking into it and leaving a random trace, that bothered them.

JB An ax for the frozen sea; is that why similar images and characters reappear in your stories—beekeepers, accordions, characters like Sorge, Kauders and Hemon in different forms? When you wrote the stories, did you work on them independently over an extended period of time, or in direct succession, with a bigger picture in mind?

AH I wrote them independently, with a big picture in mind. I didn’t always know what the next story might be, but I knew they would have to live together. And the big picture ain’t done yet. I am not sure how other people do it, but what I get out of writing—the recent goodies of fame and fortune notwithstanding—is a way to understand how things work. Writing is a mode of knowing for me, and I’ve been lucky enough to have found someone to pay me for what I would do anyway. I have to write to function. When I am not writing I am not particularly bright, though I am a pretty good soccer player.

JB Always a good thing to be. But zeroing in for a moment on Hemon, whose characters are, by turns, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and a 19th-century Breton marching with Napoleon to Russia … assuming most, if not all, of your book is fiction, what is the real Hemon story?

AH You tell me. I like assuming different personalities, or different personalities assuming me—I suppose that’s another reason why I like writing. That’s why I like spies, too: people with multiple personalities functioning simultaneously. It also confuses the matter of the writer’s self-expression—the omnipresent cliché of a work of fiction as a covert, or not so covert, autobiography. Which one of those characters represents the “real” me? Some of them did things that I did, some of them witnessed things that my friends witnessed, some of them did what I would like to do, and some of them are just plain made up.

The Question of Bruno was being shopped around, she met a couple of editors who thought I didn’t exist. One of them thought she, my agent, wrote it. This was exhilarating to me. I told her: “Whoever does not believe I exist is a friend of mine.” If there are people who don’t think I exist, I must have done something right.

JB It’s easy—and a great pleasure—to create satellites for oneself. Call it multiple personality disorder, but who doesn’t want to assume a different character at some point in their life? Imagine how many lies you’ve told the person sitting next to you on an airplane.

AH Yes, I realized, as my life in Sarajevo was being destroyed by the war, that I could completely make myself up here. In spy lingo there is the term “legend” and that is the imaginary life that an agent pretends to have had. I was looking for a job in Chicago as a bartender and told people that I used to be a bartender, which was not true. I never got the job, I guess I didn’t have that bartenderness, but I fully imagined having been a bartender.

JB Reinvention. It’s funny how we can begin to believe our lies. But one of the lives you’ve actually led is that of an immigrant. You first came to the U.S., to Chicago in the early nineties, unable to speak much English. In “Exchange of Pleasant Words,” you beautifully encapsulate this alien experience: “We used to live these half lives of people who cannot forget what they used to be and who are afraid of being addressed in a foreign language, not being able any longer to utter anything truly meaningful.” If language, or the ability to communicate, is what gives us meaning, then what options does an immigrant have to create meaning for his/herself?

AH Language is necessary for exchanges between people and those exchanges shape your identity. Whoever an immigrant used to be is reshaped and altered here and sometimes that is painful and humiliating. I taught English as a second language at one point mainly to people from the former Soviet Union—some of them were literally rocket scientists in the Soviet space program—and here they had suburban American kids fresh out of college speaking loudly to them as if they were retarded, because they were at level two, unable to figure out the plural of “ox.”

I spoke enough English when I got here—I could communicate fairly well. But I had this ontological crisis because it seemed to me that there was always a gap between what I wanted to say and what I was saying. I was misrepresenting myself, watching myself attaining a different shape in other people’s eyes (and ears). It scared me at first, but then I found it liberating. This is when I kissed my unified, monolithic self good-bye and started thinking about writing—and everything else—differently.

JB When it comes to writing, I assume you now write in English because the writing is just too fluid, and the diction too dead on, to have been translated.

AH I do write fiction exclusively in English, but I also write regularly in my native language. As I’ve said, I write a biweekly column in Bosnian for Dani. I’ve been doing that for years. And I used to write fiction in Bosnian, but it was very much unlike anything I write now. Moreover, in 1997 I translated a few of my stories written in English into Bosnian and published them in Sarajevo, and the funny thing was that they were slightly off—they were much better, more “true” in English.

JB In the story “A Coin,” which is constructed as a correspondence between two friends—one in Chicago, the other in Sarajevo—one of the narrators says, “What terrifies me is that, as I rip the exhausted envelope, she may be dead. She may have vanished, may have already become a ghost, a nothing—a fictitious character, so to speak—and I’m reading her letter as if she were alive, her voice ringing in my brain, her visions projected before my eyes, her hand shaping curved letters. I fear to communicate with a creature of my memory, with a dead person. I dread the fact that life is always lower than death and I have been chosen, despite my weakness, against my will, to witness the discrepancy.” Many of your characters endure this same task. What are the responsibilities of bearing witness?

AH There is this whole technology of storing records and memories outside of human beings—you know, computer memories, archives, official histories, museums, et cetera. You don’t need to remember, because there are mechanisms for remembering it for you. This way, past and history are removed from people’s lives so they can happily live and shop in the eternal present, as the past is stored away. Similarly, there is a technology of witnessing—media, images—whereby a person witnesses the record of the event rather than the event itself. This is possible because these technologies claim to be simply representing truth, so the event and the representation of the event are presumably equal. As an alternative to that, there are personal memories, unalienated memories that are continuously a part of people’s lives. I don’t think any of us today would be truly aware of the magnitude of the Holocaust experience if it weren’t for people’s memories and stories and the fact that in some ways they continued to experience it, and people who lived with them and loved them continued to experience it with them. Otherwise, all you’ve got is Life Is Beautiful and shit like that, where the horrors of the Holocaust are shouting Germans and people dropping out of the picture. Testimonies are, therefore, important, because they are not documents representing “truth,” but experiences. And if you think of fiction as a way to testify, then its role is crucial. Danilo Kis—the great Yugoslav (as in former Yugoslavia) writer—said that every writer must face up to the fact of Auschwitz and Kolyma, which does not mean that she or he should write about them. The point is that they are a part of everyone’s historical and personal experience. And I believed this to be true well before the Bosnian camps.

JB But photographs, in the process of recording can also lead to a kind of disappearance. In Kosovo, where the media has projected so many images of the conflict so as to almost numb the world of emotion, pictures actually water down our connection to these events. What hope do we have, then, in the end, for remembering?

AH Well, as I’ve said, the technology of remembering and witnessing displaces human remembering—collective or individual—and this technology is contingent upon the claim that it represents “truth.” There is no space for participation—or emotion, if you will—in this technology, because it is presumably rational and objective. But fiction or fictitious images—provided that they shed the pretense of being “true”—open, at least potentially, a space for participation, emotional or otherwise. One should think of fiction—not just writing, but all imaginative practices—as a space where people get together to talk about things that matter to them, not as a space where a genius artist lectures “little” people, telling them what is true and what isn’t. Fiction can also subvert the claim of those technologies to be representing “truth” by producing “truth” itself and then pointing at the quotation marks.

JB Yes, in “A Coin” and “The Sorge Spy Ring,” where a young boy suspects his father of being a spy, you show two perspectives of the same story. They echo one another, and in doing so create a much broader picture.

AH For one thing, I very often find stories, let alone novels, told in the first person excruciatingly boring. It’s like being stuck in an elevator with a ranting lunatic, or a witless Humbert Humbert. I want to hear some other voices, for God’s sake, because I know there are fucking billions of people outside that one person. Take, say, a 5,000-word story in which the narrator pretends to be telling it, rather than writing it—you know, with insertions of things like “I guess,” “I don’t know” or “like.” It is highly implausible. One of the things they teach people in creative writing programs, is to find a “voice.” But what’s wrong with voices? The point of multiple voices, multiple narrators (and all stories in my book except one have at least two narrative modes or voices) is to construct a story as a space of exchange and invite the reader in, rather than saying to the reader, “Now shut up, because I have a story to tell.” I am saying—at least I like to think I am—“Come on, join in, we are telling stories here.“

I was reading Bellow’s Herzog and dropped it at the point where Herzog is in a cab, thinking about himself yet again. And I kept thinking, Who is the cabbie, what does the cab smell like? I figured then that there are at least two kinds of literature: taxi, or family car literature, in which people sit in the back seat, look out at distant “other” people and ponder the paucity of their middle-class lives, like Herzog; and public transportation literature, where people share a space together, rubbing their bodies against one another, sweating, smelling, exchanging glances, reading over someone else’s shoulders, et cetera.

And if I never ever again read a story about a 50-year-old writer or a professor going through a divorce or some other crisis, I’ll be a happy man.

JB In that vein, your characters like to inhabit other’s lives, to stand in their shoes and see the world through their eyes. More than once in The Question of Bruno, a character steps into the footsteps—those concrete imprints that strangely remind me of the hands and feet on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—of Princip, the man who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Putting oneself, literally, in another man’s shoes, what kind of lesson is this, to Bosnia, to the endless ethnic conflicts across the globe? Is there a way to teach tolerance and see the world through another’s eyes?

AH Those footsteps were, well, constructed in Sarajevo in memory of Princip, for in the mythology of Tito’s Yugoslavia, he was a liberator. But now those concrete footprints are gone—they don’t exist anymore, for he is no longer a liberator, now he is an assassin. The footprints were a fiction, as it were, that allowed those characters to try to imagine what Princip’s experience might have been.

As for lessons, I cannot provide any. I am not in the lecturing business. There is nothing mystical about history—people live it daily, here and everywhere. Everyone can know as much as I do. Only from afar, things look inexplicable or unavoidable.

The alleged impossibility of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is related to the belief that a person has this self hoarded deep, deep inside, most private thing that no one can have access to. If you are the king or queen of your selfhood, you can never be someone else, you can never understand someone else, as they cannot understand you. But what if you are always to some extent someone else? If people were always involved in a network of exchanges, always constituted by other people, rather then self-created? They could imagine being in a different position in that network, for they always know something about it and someone in it.

Then there is imagination. I mean, you can try to imagine how someone else lives—as opposed to imagining how you would feel in that life. And fiction allows a person, I think, to imagine living someone else’s life, and not because we are all universally the same. For instance, a white person can never experience racism the same way a black person does. But people can exchange stories, talk and listen to one another. It’s all pretty simple, when you think about it. If I had thought that no one could really understand what happened in Bosnia or Yugoslavia, or anywhere else for that matter, I would have never written The Question of Bruno. I would have written a book about “myself,” and then I would have waited to see if there were enough people like myself. And even if there were, we probably wouldn’t know what else to say to one another.

Originally published in

BOMB 72, Summer 2000

Featuring interviews with Om Puri, Uncle Mame, Donald Baechler, Monique Prieto, Aleksandar Hemon, Paul Beatty, Arthur C. Danto, Julien Temple, and Miriam Makeba.

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