Bosnian-American writer Alexsander Hemon won rave reviews for his first novel, The Lazarus Project, and though still early in his career, has already been both a Guggenheim fellow and recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Expectations for his newest book, Love and Obstacles, have been understandably high, but how will this volume of short stories stand up to his previous work, which has already prompted comparisons with Nabokov and Conrad?
Love and Obstacles is a collection of linked stories, united by the figure of the narrator, an unnamed Bosnian who we follow from adolescent encounters in Africa and Europe to adult life in America. Delicately traversing the border between comedy and tragedy, this collection is undoubtedly an impressive achievement: a powerful, frank and often discomfiting investigation of the themes of displacement, alienation, and in particular, the traumatic effects of the 1992 Bosnian war. But Love and Obstacles is also an exploration of writing itself, exposing both its complexity and its inherent absurdity: the title is taken from a poem written by the young narrator who “didn’t know what [it was] about but… felt that [it] attained a realm of human innocence and experience that was unknowable, even by me.”
Some of the most compelling stories in this volume are those dealing with the narrator’s early adolescence, and encounters between innocence and experience. “Everything” is the tale of the 17-year old narrator’s ill-fated trip to a small Bosnian town to buy a freezer chest, which rapidly becomes an adventure into an unfamiliar adult world; whilst “Stairway to Heaven” set in the Congo, explores similar territory, with hints to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Whilst there may be an element of the cliche in the figure of the naive young aspiring poet, Hemon’s deft, clear-eyed treatment of adolescent embarassment sets these stories apart. As the setting shifts to America in stories like “The Conductor”, a bittersweet exploration of the narrator’s complex relationship with a celebrated Bosnian poet, the focus shifts away from the personal, using the narrator’s experiences as a springboard to explore and expose the absurdities and hypocrisies of contemporary American life: its “banal quotidian operations” and its people who “endure life with the anesthetic help of television and magazines,” observed from the perspective of the outsider. Yet interestingly, Hemon’s narrator is a true “nowhere man” equally alienated from the experience of war in Sarajevo as he is from life in America, unable to imagine the reality of the war-torn city he has left behind.
Indeed, a restless sense of dislocation, uncertainty and displacement is to be found throughout these stories, perhaps partly because of the strangely alien quality of Hemon’s beautifully-crafted prose, whether he is describing the violence of war, the curious unreality of life in communist Yugoslavia, or the otherness of wealthy American society. His descriptions are always masterly, twisting language into unexpected shapes and directions, and his prose is gracefully sprinkled with an unusual selection of words from “caliginous and “piceous” to “welkin” and “edentate”. The result is a distinct and highly original narratorial voice, which is central to this acutely-observed collection’s peculiar power.
Any Cop?: Bringing together pathos with brilliantly black humour, Love and Obstacles is an bold and irrepressible collection: vivid, deft and distinctively surreal.