Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon
Nabokov’s Dozen by Vladimir Nabokov
I purchased Love and Obstacles after seeing a bit of an interview of Hemon a few months ago. One of the blurbs inside from the Washington Post stated, “Reviewers find it difficult to resist comparing Aleksandar Hemon to Nabokov, since both men [have a] preternatural facility in their second, acquired language….” Frankly, I didn’t catch what they were referring to, completely missing the point on “acquired language”. Immediately, I ordered the Nabokov short story collection too, just to read both and see how they related. The fact that Hemon is terribly handsome never influenced my purchasing decision. It was his voice.
Reading Hemon’s book first, I found myself constantly checking to see the genre, that little word on the back, again and again. Was this really fiction? It felt so autobiographical, because several parallels exist between some of the protagonist’s in the varying stories. Links to Sarajevo, the immigrant experience for a Bosnian in the US, and the writer’s experience all felt like direct references to Hemon himself. His writing is humorous, uncanny in the showing the little details as they relate to the whole, and almost eerie in how the violence of the past leaves a person intact and moving forward, even when it seems like it’s all destructive.
By far, my favorite story is “American Commando”. In it, he combines several elements: a teacher attempting to teach English to a classroom of Bosnian boys by using the tune “Catch a Falling Star”, Stallone’s Rambo archetype, playground warfare by nine-year-old boys, an obsessive film student, and a boy swimming far past the view of his parents, out into the deep sea. It all comes together in what can only be called stunning. The theme of it is a film student wanting to chronicle his escape from Bosnia to the US:
“I told her the stories of my life, embellishing here, flatly making things up there, for I frankly wanted to help her write a good script and get the funding for her project. I even meekly nudged her toward a short film in which I could play myself in various situations from my life—one of those brainy postmodern setups everybody likes so well because it has something to do with identity—but she gently rejected the idea. I flirted with her too, for, as everybody knows, the job of the writer is to seduce his readers.”
So, for her, he talks. And talks. He tells of the “Garden War” that he and his buddies vehemently engaged in, which perplexes her as she sees the focus of the ‘real’ war, one that killed many of those boys later, as more relevant. The war was fought over a patch of playground and later over the rightness of the “Workers” to build a utility shed. The boys called themselves “The Insurgents” and stopped at nothing—but being just nine and ten, the soldiers didn’t get far. Yet their urgency never waned:
“...for us, the war was elating, the freedom inherent in erasure, the absolute righteousness of our cause—we loved it all….And the life of stealth and deception, the feeling that we knew far more than the people around us.”
The story winds through present and past, and even this “writer” who knew so much on the playground is still surprised by details of his own family that the film student had gleaned. Important things that never occurred to him while in battle. And that other battle, the one that left the real Sarajevo in shreds, comes into play too.
Other stories in his collection have a similar feel, and “The Noble Truths of Suffering” also nudges heavily towards what I imagine is Hemon’s real life. In it, he meets a famous American author at a Bosnian dinner party and tries to figure out what is behind the famous name. Ultimately, he asks the author if he’s read his story, “Love and Obstacles”, when it was in the New Yorker. (It actually was: returning to back flap, is this really fiction???)
The author is more complicated than our narrator expects, one claiming to be Buddhist while writing war stories. He even comes over for lunch. And while this author never becomes pals with that author, he still looks for clues in his work, to see if his story is ever hinted at in the work of the other. The contrast of an aging (washed up?) author with smart-ass Bosnian author is well-crafted. It made me keep reading it in wonderment of what Hemon was getting at about writing, books, and literature in general. Is it disguising his personal fears at becoming successful without substance? Quantity without quality? (IMHO, not a chance).
But back to that blurb…the one that mentioned Hemon with Nabokov. Still, I was clueless what that meant, until I went to write about Hemon’s book and found no note of a translator. Surely, English couldn’t be his second language…could it? And what did that have to do with Nabokov, the Russian great? I threw a question out online and got several responses that stated Nabokov also wrote in English, not Russian. For both, English was a second language and makes both of their works that much more stunning. Their grasp is not amateur but surpasses most any English writer I can name.
Reading Nabokov’s Dozen was in many ways, then, similar to Hemon’s. Subject matter, time periods, style, and voice all felt different (Hemon is snarky and fun, Nabokov a teensy bit arrogant and above the masses), and yet they are united by stunning word usages and pictures of humanity, both the humor and the suffering.
Nabokov’s Dozen features two that are considered autobiographical, “O Mademoiselle” and “First Love”; the rest are pictures of rather simple events made complicated and deeper by the ideas Nabokov hints at. In “Spring in Fialta”, his main character meets up occasionally with an old lover. But far beyond any character studies is just how he describes things:
Regarding a train trip: “…with that reckless gusto peculiar to trains in mountainous country, [doing] its thundering best to collect throughout the night as many tunnels as possible.” Later he talks about the “elbows” of the train tiring, humanizing the transportation that appears so frequently in his works. True, he could have said “connecting rods” but where’s the art in that? Train travel in his stories is elegant, life-changing, and ultimately, far more than just a way to cover distance. Much of what happens in the story set in just a day in Fialta isn’t directly said: he alludes to it and lets you connect the dots. And when you do, it’s with a sharp blow to the chest.
In “Signs and Symbols”, he uncovers the complete irrelevancy of much of what makes the human exist: “Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.” He only infers how useless all that trembling worry became. Throughout this story, the images can be read different ways…in fact it’s the basis of an entire anthology (http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=165822&SearchType=Basic) that I am coveting from Continuum Books.
I loaned the Nabokov book to someone who felt understanding the “simple” stories was too much work—too complicated to read for pleasure. (Groan.) He’s not spare, but at the same time, it’s not like he’s being paid by the word. His usage is detailed but perfectly so, each word adding depth to what only appears simple.
“First Love” is sweet, with its image of Biarritz and the vacation of a wealthy family. Of course the boy will fall in love with the little French girl, and in his mind, the “gold coin that I assumed would pay for our elopement” would take them far away from her bourgeois parents to someplace more in keeping with his family’s wealth. But despite expecting that, knowing that it will come to an end, the story is still fresh. Retelling it, he bemoans his inability to remember the name of the little girl’s dog, and that failure of memory troubles him. Somehow, that simple loss changes his explanation of the whole affair, and when he can remember it, the ending naturally can be put to rest.
Reading these, I was reminded of the enjoyment of short stories, the way you can be transported, albeit briefly, into another place. I hadn’t felt this enthused since reading some of Tim Winton’s short stories that have a more earthy yet still compelling glance at humanity.