“The newspapers had cooed over the international romance: he had wooed her by singing and writing poetry; she had taken him to mass grave sites.”
– From the story “The Conductor” in Love and Obstacles
Love and Obstacles: Stories. By Aleksandar Hemon. Riverhead, 224 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
All of the stories in this fine collection deal with the condition that therapists call ambiguous loss, or unresolved grief for people who are physically present but psychologically absent or physically absent but psychologically present. The tales involve characters who are, as one of them says, “There, but not there.”
Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo of Ukrainian descent and stranded in the U.S. when the Bosnian War broke out while he was visiting Chicago in 1992. The unnamed first-person narrator of the eight linked stories in Love and Obstacles survives a similar uprooting from the Balkans to the Midwest. These tragicomic tales often invoke a Sarajevo that is physically absent but psychologically present and describe other psychic and geographic displacements.
Hemon’s narrator has literary aspirations that comfort and bedevil him in his homeland and later in America, where he sells magazines door-to-door before becoming a writer. In the first story, he is a teenager in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire — the latest posting for his father, a minor Yugoslav diplomat — and thinks of Joseph Conrad’s phrase inhabited devastation as he travels to the slums of Kinshasa with a man who may or may not be be an American spy. An air of menace lingers after he settles in Chicago: Hemon’s stories show that the condition of exile transcends the place of exile, and America does not necessarily hold fewer dangers for expatriates than an African dictatorship.
Two of the best stories in Love and Obstacles involve writers who might seem overrated – a Bosnian poet and an American novelist — until the tales raise the possibility that the literary-ratings systems are inadequate to the complexity of art. “The Noble Truths of Suffering” could have been too clever by a half – it has a scene in which a writer reads another writer’s story about a writer and his family – but reveals Hemon’s gifts as a satirist as it tweaks a self-important Pulitzer Prize-winner on a book tour in Bosnia.
“The Conductor” brings together the two great threads of Love and Obstacles. By now well-established in the U.S., the narrator still feels guilty about not having stayed for the siege of Sarajevo, a city physically absent but psychologically present in his life. Then he reconnects in Madison, Wisconsin, with a revered Bosnian poet who did stay. In his youth the narrator had known and mocked Dedo for writing poetry perhaps more admired for its sentimental patriotism for its art. But he finds him changed by the siege. Dedo had married an American lawyer who collected war-crimes evidence in Bosnia: “he had wooed her by singing and writing poetry; she had taken him to mass grave sites.” (Both the dark humor and the semicolon are typical of Hemon.) And if the siege took a toll on Dedo, his subsequent move to the U.S. took another. His wife scorns his work, and he has become a drunk, physically present but psychologically absent in his marriage.
The differences between Dedo and the man who once mocked him come into sharp focus as a young woman walks toward the bathroom in a bar in Madison. The narrator says, “Cute.” Dedo says, “She is crying.” This exchange suggests that the Bosnian poet, for all his defects, has kept a part of his humanity that his more Americanized — and successful — companion has lost. The narrator eventually sees this. He comes to believe that Dedo, flawed as he is, is “a beautiful human being.” This casts Dedo’s work in a new light. He may be a bad poet, or he may be good one. But the distinction is less important than the narrator once thought. These stories remind us that – for immigrants as for others – life itself is the great art.
Best line: A character in the story “The Bees, Part I” says that the apples you got in Canada “tasted as if they had been dry-cleaned.”
Worst line: The narrator of “The Noble Truths of Suffering” describes a cocktail party: “The writers were recognizable by the incoherence bubbling up on their stained-tie surfaces.”
Published: May 2009
Furthermore: More about Love and Obstacles appeared on this site on Sept. 7.
Read an excerpt: The complete “The Nobel Truths of Suffering” appears on The New Yorker site.