Host Michel Martin talks to Bosnia born fiction writer, Aleksandar Hemon about his new collection of short stories, Love and Obstacles.
The setting of Hemon's stories span the globe and take readers from Kinshasa to Sarajevo, and to Chicago. Known to many by his uniquely descriptive writing style, the author was awarded a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation in 2004.
The uniformed jaran did not acknowledge that I spoke in Bosnian to him. Silently, he checked my invitation, then compared the picture in my American passport with my mopey local face, and it appeared to have matched reason-ably well. His head resembled an armchair—the deep-set forehead, the handlebar-like ears, the jutted jaw-seat—and I could not stop staring at it. He handed me back my passport with the invitation tucked inside and said, with his furniture-head accent: "Good evening to you." The American ambassador's house was a huge ugly new thing, famously built high up in the hills by a Bosnian tycoon before he abruptly decided he needed even more space and, without spending a day in it, rented it to His American Excellency. There was still some work to be done—the narrow concrete path zigzagged meaninglessly through a veritable mud eld; the bottom left corner of the frontage was unpainted, so it looked like a recently scarred-over wound. Farther up the hill, one could see a yellow lace threading the fringes of the woods, marking a wilderness thick with mines. Inside, however, all was asparkle. The walls were dazzling white, the stairs squeaked with untroddenness; on the rst landing was a stand with a large bronze eagle, its wings frozen mid-ap over a hapless, writhing snake. At the top of the stairs, in a spiffy suit, if a size too big, stood Jonah, the cultural attache, whom I had once misaddressed as Johnny and kept misaddressing since, pretending it was a joke. "Johnny-boy," I said, "how goes it?" He shook my hand wholeheartedly, claiming he was extremely happy to see me. And maybe he was, who am I to say.
I snatched a glass of beer and a ute of champagne from a tray-carrying mope whose Bosnianness was unquestion-ably signied by a crest of hair looming over his forehead. "ta ima?" I said. "Evo," he said. "Radim." I downed the beer and washed it down with champagne before I entered the already crowded mingle room. I tracked down another tray-holder, who despite a mustached leathery face looked vaguely familiar, like someone who may have bullied me in high school. "ta ima?" I asked. "Evo," he said. "Nita."
Ambidextrously armed with more beer and champagne, I assumed a corner position from which I could, cougarlike, monitor the gathering. I spotted the minister of culture, resembling a bald, mangy panda, despite the fact that all the ngers on both of his hands were individually bandagedhe held his champagne ute between his palms like a votive candle. There were various Bosnian TV personalities, sporting their Italian spectacles and the telegenic abundance of unnecessary frowns and smirks. The writers were recognizable by the incoherence bubbling up on their stained-tie surfaces. A throng of Armani-clad businessmen swarmed around the pretty, young interpreters, while the large head of a famous retired basketball player hovered over them like a full moon. I spotted the ambassador—stout, prim, Republican, with a small, puckered-asshole mouth—talking to someone who must have been Macalister. The possible Macalister was in a purple velvet jacket over a Hawaiian shirt; his denim pants were worn out and bulging at the knees, as though he spent his days kneeling; he wore open-toe Birkenstocks with white socks; everything on him looked hand-me-down. He was in his fties but had a head of Bakelite-black hair, so unyielding it seemed it had been mounted on his head decades before and had not changed its form since. Without expressing any identiable emotion, he was listening to the ambassador, who was rocking back on his heels, pursing his lips, slowly passing out a thought. Macalister was drinking water; his glass slanted slightly in his hand so the water edge repeatedly touched the brim only to retreat, in the exact rhythm of the ambassador's rocking. I was already tipsy enough to be able to accost Macalister as soon as the ambassador left him alone. I nished my beer and champagne and was considering pursuit of a tray for the purpose of refueling, when the ambassador bellowed: "May I have your attention, please!" and the din quieted down, and the tray mopes stopped moving, and the crowd around the ambassador and Macalister spread away a bit.
"It is my great pleasure and privilege," the ambassador vociferated, rocking in a very slow rhythm, "to welcome Dick Macalister, our great writer and—based on the little time I have spent talking to him—an even greater guy."
We all applauded obediently. Macalister was looking down at his empty glass. He moved it from hand to hand, then slipped it into his pocket.
Some weeks before, I had received an invitation from the United States ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, His Excellency Eliot Auslander, to join him in honoring Richard Macalister, a Pulitzer Prize winner and acclaimed author. The invitation was sent to my Sarajevo address, only a week or so after I had arrived. I could not gure out how the embassy knew I was there, though I had a few elaborately para-noid ideas. It troubled me greatly that I was located as soon as I landed, for I came to Sarajevo for shelter. My plan was to stay at our family apartment for a few months and forget about a large number of things (my divorce, my breakdown, the War on Terror, everything) that had tormented me in Chicago. My parents were already in Sarajevo for their an-nual spring stay, and my sister was to join us upon her return from New Zealand; hence the escape to Sarajevo was begin-ning to feel like a depleted deja vu of our previous life. We were exactly where we had been before the war, but every-thing was fantastically different—we were different; the neighbors were fewer and different; the hallway smell was different; and from our window we could see a ruin that used to be a kindergarten and now nobody cared to raze.
I wasn't going to go to the reception; I had had enough of America and Americans to last me for another lousy lifetime. But my parents were very proud that the American ambassador was willing to welcome me at his residence. The invitation—the elaborate coat of arms, the elegant cursive, the volutes and whorls of His Excellency's signature— recalled for them the golden years of my father's diplomatic service and ofcially elevated me into the realm of respectable adults. Father offered to let me wear his suit to the reception; he claimed it still looked good, despite its being twenty or so years old and sporting a triangular iron burn on its lapel.
I kept resisting their implorations until I went to an Internet cafe to read up on Richard Macalister. I had heard of him, of course, but had never read any of his books, as I seldom read contemporary American ction. With an emaciated teenager to my left liquidating scores of disposable videogame civilians and a cologne-reeking gentleman to my right listlessly browsing bestiality sites, I surfed through the life and work of Dick Macalister. To cut a long story short, he was born, he lived, he wrote books, he inicted suffering and occasionally suffered himself. In Fall, his most recent memoir—"a heartbreaking, clenched-jaw confession"—he owned up to his wife-abusing, extended drinking binges, and spectacular breakdowns. In the novel Depth Sickness, a loan shark shot off his foot on a hunting trip, then redeemed in recollection his vacuous, vile life while waiting for help or death, both of which arrived at approximately the same time. "Macalister seems to have never heard of the dissociation of sensibilities," The New York Times eulogized, "for his book is a host to a whole slew of them." I skimmed the reviews of the short story collections (one of them was called Suchness) and spent time reading about Nothing We Say, "Macalister's masterpiece," the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel was about "a Vietnam vet who does everything to get out of war, but cannot get war out of himself." Everybody was crazy about it. "It is hard not to be humbled by the honest brutality of Macalister's tortured heroes," one reviewer wrote. "These men speak little not because they have nothing to say but because the last remnants of decency in their dying hearts compel them to protect others from what they could say." It all sounded pretty good to me, but nothing to write home about. I found a Macalister fan site, where there was a selection of passages from his works accompanied by pages upon pages of trivial exegesis. Some of the quotations were rather nice, and I wrote them down:
Before Nam, Cupper was burdened with the pointless enthusiasm of youth.
The best remedy for the stormy sky is a curtain, he said.
On the other side of the vast, milky windowpane there saun-tered a crew of basketball players, their shadows like a caravan passing along the horizon.
Cupper had originally set out to save the world, but now he knew it was not worth it.
One of these days the thick chitin of the world will break open, and shit and sorrow will pour out and drown us all. Nothing we say can stop that.
I liked that one. The thick chitin of the world, that was pretty good.
We all eagerly drank to Macalister's health and success, whereupon he was beset by a swarm of the quickest suckups. I stepped out to the balcony, where all the smokers were forced to congregate. I pretended I was looking for some-one, stretching my neck, squinting, but whoever I was looking for did not seem to be there. Down in the valley were dotted-light streets and illuminated, rocketlike minarets; at the far fringe of the night, toward Mojmilo hill, the pitch at the eljo soccer stadium was heartbreakingly green. Nothing was moving down below, as though the city were sunk at the bottom of a sea.
Reprinted from LOVE AND OBSTACLES, by Aleksandar Hemon with permission of Riverhead, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by Aleksandar Hemon.