Book Review - Aleksandar Hemon masters English with Love and Obstacles

Like China’s Ha Jin, Bosnia’s Aleksandar Hemon learned English as an adult and quickly became its master as an acclaimed fiction writer. It’s as though Hemon and Ha Jin are trying to make us less-lauded, native English speakers look bad.

Hemon moved to the United States in his late 20s, shortly before civil war broke out in Bosnia. He began writing in English in 1995, and in just over a decade has published his stories in the New Yorker, won a MacArthur Genius grant, and been a National Book Award finalist for his 2008 novel The Lazarus Project. From some of his descriptive passages, you’d assume Hemon grew up with the language: “A few days later, spring parachuted into Chicago: the air was abruptly warm and fragrant, the grass was suddenly green, as if it had been painted overnight.”

In his new collection Love and Obstacles, Hemon presents eight stories, each narrated by an unnamed Bosnian writer turned American immigrant with unmistakable similarities to the author. Throughout the book, Hemon shows hardly any sentiment for either his homeland or his adopted nation. He’s even harder on himself, offering fictionalized self-portraits as either a painfully earnest would-be artist in his youth or a crabby intellectual as an adult. Hemon’s engrossing stories focus on the complexities of memory, creativity and national character. They combine the earthiness of Old World Europe with the sardonic wit that often informs writers who came of age under communism.

As much as Hemon’s stories celebrate the craft of writing, he frequently mocks himself as a writer. In “Everything,” he describes being a teenager and going on a character-building quest to buy his family a freezer in a small town, where his drunkenness and pretentious romanticism nearly causes a disaster. In “The Conductor” and the ironically titled “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” the Hemon-character initially plays the fool in the presence of older, more successful writers before finding the wisdom in their examples.

While the collection is titled Love and Obstacles, it could just as easily be named Memory and Obstacles, as many stories frequently approach his recollections from intriguingly oblique angles. “The Bees, Part 1” begins in the narrator’s childhood and discusses his father’s contradictory creative impulses and insistence on “truth.” The author stand-in discusses playing his father in the only completed scene in a would-be autobiographical film. Then as an adult, he reads his father’s short manuscript on the family’s beekeeping history, which includes the ravages of Bosnia in the 20th century. Though Hemon never overtly describes the father-son relationship, it vividly emerges as both tense and tender.

Past and present similarly merge in “American Commando,” in which the Hemon stand-in becomes the subject of a short film by a fellow Bosnian. The filmmaker prompts him to recount a childhood episode in which he and his friends declared “war” on a neighboring construction site and he’d play-act as an American soldier, speaking phonetic English from war movies and pop songs: “Fetch a kalling star and pet it de packet, maike it for it meny dey.” The narrator’s flirtations with the filmmaker prove half-hearted compared to his youthful flirtation with being an American. Given Hemon’s present-day attitudes toward the United States, that particular honeymoon ended long ago. The union of the Serbian writer and the English language, however, has proved an undeniably fruitful one.

Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon. Riverhead Books. $25.95. 210 pp.