"Love and Obstacles" by Aleksander Hemon

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

This thin book of stories by National Book Award finalist Aleksandar Hemon ushers you into the world of the immigrant. The stories are linked via a character living in Sarajevo, who flees to the United States just as Bosnia falls to pieces.

Here, characters are outsiders peering through a haze at a culture that doesn't make sense. Displacement is an unsettling and near-drunken (or sometimes drunken) state of mind.

In the opening story, "Stairway to Heaven," one of my favorites, a teenaged boy who has traveled with his family to Africa because his father is a Yugoslavian diplomat, meets the mysterious neighbor Spinelli who plays drums and rocks out to Led Zeppelin.


"Love and Obstacles"


By Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead ($25.95)


He introduces the boy, a budding writer who he nicknames Blunderpuss, to all the decadence, drugs and danger he can stand. The story looks at the inside and outside of boredom:

"The ceiling fan spun sluggishly, incessantly, cruelly reminding me that time here [in Africa] passed at the same mind-numbingly slow speed."

It's a tale, like many in this book, that explores the before and the after, the no-going-back that settles down after a life-changing experience, even if a person might want to return to the previous state of ignorance.

In each story, the narrator yearns to be or is a writer, often working on a book called "Love and Obstacles." In this way, there is a metafiction autobiographical commentary running from beginning to end.

We (perhaps) learn about Hemon as we meet his characters. It's subtle and not a wink-wink, look-this-book-is-about-me-but-it's-not-about-me statement, and because of its subtlety, it's interesting, where in less accomplished hands it might have been tedious.

The exposition throughout the collection is stunning. Hemon's great talent is, like many of his characters, observation:

"I was experienced enough to recognize the commencement of an unsolicited confession."

"This took place just before the war, in the relatively rosy times when we were euphoric with the imminence of disaster."

And "Dawn arrived with a fanfare of chirruping sparrows, and Bogdan passed out under the weight of what could very loosely be called happiness."

The book rang a little hollow to me in its dialogue. Nothing to lose sleep over, but with descriptions and scenes so vivid, I wanted the characters to talk more (and more interestingly) with each other. This is a minor complaint, however.

From a card-playing landlord who leaves haiku-like notes for his tenant -- "The door is either/ Open or locked/I like/Locked" -- to a beekeeping father obsessed with The Truth who wants to make a film about his life that "does not lie" to a wannabe writer "drunk and high on bonding with one of the greatest writers of our embarrassing ... time," Hemon shows us outsiders trying to step inside, trying to put on an occupation or a country or a new suit jacket and make them work.

Stepping into this book is like traveling to a new country, even when the story is set in America. You're not sure why you've come or if you'll make it out the same, but when you do, you can set down the book, look around your living room, and think: OK. I'm home now. Here, on the inside again.

This thin book of stories by National Book Award finalist Aleksandar Hemon ushers you into the world of the immigrant. The stories are linked via a character living in Sarajevo, who flees to the United States just as Bosnia falls to pieces.

Here, characters are outsiders peering through a haze at a culture that doesn't make sense. Displacement is an unsettling and near-drunken (or sometimes drunken) state of mind.

In the opening story, "Stairway to Heaven," one of my favorites, a teen-aged boy who has traveled with his family to Africa because his father is a Yugoslavian diplomat, meets the mysterious neighbor Spinelli who plays drums and rocks out to Led Zeppelin.

He introduces the boy, a budding writer who he nicknames Blunderpuss, to all the decadence, drugs and danger he can stand. The story looks at the inside and outside of boredom:

"The ceiling fan spun sluggishly, incessantly, cruelly reminding me that time here [in Africa] passed at the same mind-numbingly slow speed."

It's a tale, like many in this book, that explores the before and the after, the no-going back that settles down after a life-changing experience, even if a person might want to return to the previous state of ignorance.

In each story, the narrator yearns to be or is a writer, often working on a book called "Love and Obstacles." In this way, there is a metafiction autobiographical commentary running from beginning to end.

We (perhaps) learn about Hemon as we meet his characters. It's subtle and not a wink-wink, look-this-book-is-about-me-but-it's-not-about-me, statement, and because of its subtlety, it's interesting, where in less accomplished hands it might have been tedious.

The exposition throughout the collection is stunning. Hemon's great talent is, like many of his characters, observation:

"I was experienced enough to recognize the commencement of an unsolicited confession."

"This took place just before the war, in the relatively rosy times when we were euphoric with the imminence of disaster."

The book rang a little hollow to me in its dialogue. Nothing to lose sleep over, but with descriptions and scenes so vivid, I wanted the characters to talk more (and more interestingly) with each other. This is a minor complaint, however.

From a card-playing landlord who leaves haiku-like notes for his tenant -- "The door is either/ Open or locked/I like/Locked" -- to a beekeeping father obsessed with The Truth who wants to make a film about his life that "does not lie" to a wannabe writer "drunk and high on bonding with one of the greatest writers of our embarrassing ... time," Hemon shows us outsiders trying to step inside, trying to put on an occupation or a country or a new suit jacket and make them work.

Stepping into this book is like traveling to a new and uncertain country, even when the story is set in America. You're not sure why you've come or if you'll make it out the same, but when you do, you can set down the book, look around your living room, and think:

OK. I'm home. I'm home now. Here, on the inside again.


Sherrie Flick's novel, "Reconsidering Happiness," will be published in September.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here