Born in Sarajevo in 1964, Aleksandar Hemon “moved to Chicago in 1992 with only a basic command of English,” the dust jacket relates. “He began writing in English in 1995.” The Question of Bruno, his first book, has received considerable acclaim. Stuart Dybek compares Hemon to Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jerzy Kosinski, who, “compelled by circumstance to emigrate from their native tongues, . . . exerted a transformational effect on literature in English. The Question of Bruno promises no less.” Parts of the book appeared in The New Yorker and Tri-Quarterly, among other journals, and one story, “Islands,” was selected for Best American Short Stories, 1999.
What the dust jacket does not mention is that Hemon took a degree in comparative literature at the University of Sarajevo. (See Hemon’s essay, “The Book of My Life,” in the December 25, 2000-January 1, 2001 issue of The New Yorker, about his professor and mentor Nikola Koljevic, who became a high-ranking figure in the Serbian Democratic Party, led by the notorious Radovan Karadzic, “he who was to become the most wanted war criminal in the world.”) Perhaps that was deemed too literary for the dust jacket copy, adding an unwelcome degree of complexity to a pleasing story. Yet if any two words sum up Hemon, they are “literary” and “complex.”
The Question of Bruno is indeed an interesting book, though the hyperbole piled on by Dybek and others does neither the reader nor the author any favors. To put it another way, rather than see this as a book that will exert “a transformational effect on literature in English”—an embarrassingly grandiose claim—it can be read as a work that highlights certain trends in contemporary writing: extreme self-consciousness, a strong sense of belatedness, a jokey tone, and a taste for pastiche. These qualities and others in the same vein are particularly evident in the work of writers such as David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers (and in McSweeney’s, the influential journal edited by Eggers); in less defined form they are pervasive.
The tone is set by the front cover of the dust jacket of The Question of Bruno, which shows the same black-and-white photograph twice at different scales: It is a cropped photo of the back of a man’s head. The reader who compares this cover photo with the small photo of Aleksandar Hemon on the back flap, accompanying the author biography, will come to the conclusion that it is Hemon himself who appears on the cover, incognito as it were.
Then there is the title of the book. The convention for collections of short fiction is to take the title of one of the pieces and give it to the collection as well. In this case, though, the title of the collection is taken from the novella Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls, which comes late in the book. This novella is divided into a number of subsections, each of which has its own title, and one of these is called “The Question of Bruno.” So one might say that Hemon plays a little game with the reader, arousing curiosity as to the meaning of the title of the book, then deflating it when the discovery of the source of the title leads merely to a dead end.
From the outset, then, Hemon establishes an air of jokey mystification, one result of which is an ironic distance between the writer and his material. That material is, first and foremost, the war in Bosnia, the governing context of the book even when it is not explicitly mentioned; second, the larger history of twentieth century wars and atrocities; and third, a latter-day version of the immigrant experience. So while on one hand Hemon’s most immediate selling point as a writer is his “Bosnian experience,” and while he uses that specific, highly charged experience to argue a certain point of view on what it means to be human, period, he wants at the same time to avoid any straightforward notion of a “literature of witness.” That would be naïve. Thus, also, while Hemon draws heavily on his family experience in the book, and even refers to his family by name, as one might expect from a memoir rather than a work of fiction, he nevertheless at the same time employs various distancing devices, so that, for example, what happens to his father in one story is different from what happens to his father in another story.
These links between “biographies” of characters—links that often seem imperfect, or arbitrary—reinforce the effect of the dust jacket photo, the title of the collection, and other elements of the book: They suggest a web of meaning that is ultimately pointless or that emphasizes the arbitrary power of the storyteller-as-God. Perhaps they are intended to suggest both the unquenchable human desire to make connections—to “make meaning”—and the futility of that desire.
In the first story, “Islands,” the narrator recalls a trip he took as a boy with his family to an island off the coast of Yugoslavia. The Hemons, readers later learn, migrated to Bosnia from Ukraine, and a member of the Ukrainian branch of the family, Uncle Julius, is there on the island. He tells stories about the period during which he was in the gulag under Stalin.
What is most distinctive about the story is its language, which is overloaded with striking similes and odd but effective word choices. “We got up at dawn, ignored the yolky sun,” it begins. There is “the thin stocking of smoke on the horizon-thread, then the ship itself, getting bigger, slightly slanted sideways, like a child’s drawing.” Also striking is the rhythm of the sentences, giving the story terrific momentum and somehow feeling just right for the child’s point of view. There are a few lapses, but for the most part it is an enormously assured and impressive performance.
Thematically, “Islands” sets up the whole book. Uncle Julius’s stories of cruelties under Stalin rhyme with other human cruelties in the stories that follow, and rhyme, too, with the brutal natural order—or disorder—on the island, where...
(The entire section is 2490 words.)