Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles

Aleksandar Hemon arrived in Chicago from his native Bosnia in 1992, with only a basic grasp of English. But he was nothing if not a quick learner: within three years Hemon published his first short story in North America, and in the decade since he has written three celebrated books and received many an accolade, including a coveted MacArthur Fellowship in 2004.

Love and Obstacles is his third collection of short fiction, and it does not disappoint. Hemon largely sticks to his own experiences (immigration, hard work, and success—also known as the American dream), with no attempt to distinguish himself from his recurring protagonist. But painted in such vital, exquisite strokes, his is a story worth hearing again and again.

Moving swiftly from youth to maturity, the collection begins through the eyes of a Joseph Conrad–obsessed teen on vacation in Zaire, and ends with Hemon as an adult, haunted by his home country and alternately revelling in and mystified by his literary reputation here.

The author is equally skilled at reconstructing his past and documenting his present. “The Bees, Part 1” is a masterwork of family history, where Hemon recounts his father’s ill-fated attempts to document his own life, including an abandoned screenplay divided into 25 bare-bones scenes: “1. I am born. 2. I walk. 3. I watch over cows,” et cetera. Even when he simply lets his memories of Chicago unspool, Hemon’s knack for pinpoint detail saves the day; a loose anecdote about a magazine salesman gets redeemed by a description of a blue-collar neighbourhood located “way down Western Avenue, where addresses had five-digit numbers”.

Throughout the collection Hemon grapples with other authors: as a reader when he is young, and as their contemporary when he is grown-up. In these latter, face-to-face encounters, Hemon is usually drunk and—internally, anyway—unflaggingly eloquent. The last story, where he sabotages an American Pulitzer Prize winner’s attempt to pick up a woman at a cocktail party back home in Bosnia, puts a fine cap on things. As the piece continues, Hemon tries to impress the American, talking up his recently published work in the New Yorker and giving him an insider’s tour of Sarajevo.

They aren’t peers, quite—but as the American remarks later on, Hemon “is well on his way”.

Riverhead, 224 pp, $32.50, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, June 25, 2009)