As much as Love and Obstacles is about cultural displacement…it’s also about coming of age. Mr. Hemon’s genius is to write about these two ordeals together, making each a proxy for the other.… Short fiction seems, in many ways, his native form, foregrounding memory-size narrative and rapid tonal changes. Mr. Hemon can conjure a stunning lyrical depiction -- he calls a woman’s “brilliant teeth an annotation to her laughter” -- only to describe a house, a bit later, as just “way the fuck up the hill.” He is the virtuoso who can pull off Paganini flawlessly, then tuck his instrument against his arm and play it like a fiddle. The sheer range of this skill -- and in a second language -- garners frequent comparisons to Nabokov and Conrad.
The New York Observer
Bosnian-born Hemon (The Lazarus Project) again beautifully twists the language in this collection of eight powerful and disquieting stories. The 1992 Bosnian war colors in the background of all the tales, whose settings range from Africa to Chicago and Sarajevo. Arranged chronologically, all but one feature a Hemon-like narrator named Bogdan, first met as a surly teenager during his diplomat father's assignment in Zaire, where he's happily corrupted by a degenerate American espionage agent. In each successive story, Bogdan recalls the surreal and salient experiences of his life: his youth with his ironically depicted family; his early determination to be a poet; his accidental sojourn in America, where he was caught after the commencement of hostilities in Bosnia; and his return to a "cesspool of insignificant, drizzly suffering," where he has a transformative night interviewing a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. Hemon arranges words like gems in a necklace. A necktie is "stretched across the chair seat, like a severed tendon"; a car is "stickered with someone else's thought"; a character's teeth are "like organ pipes." Writing with steely control and an antic eye, Hemon has assembled another extraordinary work. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
You make feel nearly giddy with pleasure at how beautifully written, funny, and entertaining [these stories] are, and at the depths of tenderness and seriousness swirling beneath their wry, deceptively offhand surface . . . . Each of these marvelous tales reminds us of how rough and rocky the road to maturity and wisdom can be, and how much joy and damage lie in wait to ambush us along the way.
Hemon shows us the nobility and the absurdity of immigrant life, the cruelty and the openness of American character. He knows both because he is both; and if this in-betweenness makes Hemon a 'nowhere man,' his excellent work also suggests that in between may be the best place for a writer to live.
Often compared to Vladimir Nabokov . . . [Hemon] has written four critically praised books . . . [Love and Obstacles] deal[s] mostly with themes of cultural identity, conflict and displacement, often featuring characters of Eastern European origin who have been set adrift and are struggling, in ways both poignant and bitterly humorous, to assimilate America as it assimilates them.
[Aleksandar Hemon's] sardonic voice propels his fiction, including the eight stories in his new collection, Love and Obstacles. The new stories are characterized by an invigorating approach to the English language, and an observant, knowing, and a sharp-tongued narrator, who, like Hemon, was born in Bosnia, lives in the U.S., and belongs nowhere.
People are talking about ... Aleksandar Hemon's darkly antic collection of stories, Love and Obstacles.
Rather than seize upon this terrifying loss of voice and identity, Love and Obstacles follows the intensive efforts of a would-be writer to find them. The collection could have narrowed and collapsed into writerly self-involvement with this premise - especially because the premis isn't wholly balanced by the larger concerns of recent European history and the American immigrant experience, which figure less significantly in this book than in its predecessors - but the collection instead expands and evolves, its major stories moving from the writer's adolescence to his flawed personal and professional life as an adult, before it concludes with striking experiements in voice appropriation and parallel storytelling
What's most appealing about the collection is its discordance. The stories illustrate the tug between assimilation and resistance, between discovering who you are and who you aren't. . . . Hemon has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov, which is understandable. Both climbed inside the English language and used it in a fresh, masterful way. Joseph Conrad did the same, writing in English rather than in his native Polish. But I also sense James Joyce's ghost drifting through Hemon's stories, steeped, as they are, in male ego, sexuality and soul-stirring. What does it mean to be a Bosnian living in America and writing in English? Where is home? Like Joyce, Hemon may have left his homeland, but he cannot stop bringing it to life on the page.
The pattern of leaving and returning, and gaining melancholy wisdom in the process, holds Hemon's linked coming-of-age stories together with drifting beauty. The narrator will be instantly familiar to readers of Hemon: a young exile from Sarajevo ends up in Chicago, becomes a writer and explores what he calls, with tongue in cheek, his "complicated identifications." But the power of the collection is the way Hemon qualifies and recasts liberation as a kind of depletion: "I felt the intense pleasure of giving up," his narrator confesses, "the expansive freedom of utter defeat." Later, he describes "the freedom inherent in erasure."
The siege of Sarajevo is the dark cloud that seems ever to drift through the atmosphere of Hemon's fiction, sometimes in the historical periphery, sometimes in the story's present on American television, sometimes in the adjustments of emigre life, casting its shadow on tales that might otherwise read as family comedy out to trace human foibles and -- what shall we call it? -- the existential oddity of being. He writes books of laughter and non-forgetting.
Aleksandar Hemon, whose novel The Lazarus Project was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008, first gained recognition as a writer of semi-autobiographical short stories. Fittingly, Hemon's latest book is a collection of eight intertwined tales related by a narrator who bears a striking resemblance to him. Of the two previously unpublished entries, Good Living is a throwaway piece about a Bosnian immigrant who peddles magazines in a Chicago suburb, but Death of the American Commando, set in the Sarajevo of Hemon's childhood, starkly captures a band of Yugoslav boys' eerie and ominous fascination with Hollywood violence.
In this book of eight short stories by Bosnian American writer Hemon (The Lazarus Project), the bold, humorous, and unpredictable writing makes readers forget that love has been coupled with other nouns in book titles so frequently that it's become clichA©. The same narrator links the stories; some characters are recurring; and, as in some of Hemon's earlier fiction, a common theme is the narrator's active role in shaping his own persona, an endeavor that transcends nationality. In "Death of the American Commando," the narrator tells a young woman interviewing him for a documentary a grotesque fabrication from his childhood that counteracts the charming stories his mother told her when she visited his family. In "The Noble Truths of Suffering," the narrator, after some success himself as a writer, is barely able to hide his affected aloofness in the presence of a Pulitzer Prize winner. In both stories, the narrator loathes and craves their adulation. Readers who've enjoyed Hemon's earlier fiction won't be disappointed; readers who are new to Hemon will be grateful that they've discovered a refreshingly uncorrupted voice. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/09.]
K. H. Cumiskey
A master of modern literary gamesmanship returns with a short-story collection that just might be a novel, with elements that closely parallel the author's career. National Book Award-nominated author Hemon (The Lazarus Project, 2008, etc.), a Bosnian now based in Chicago who has had several stories published in the New Yorker, offers a series of interconnected, first-person narratives about a Bosnian writer who moves to Chicago and has a story called "Love and Obstacles" published in the New Yorker. Yet the author has something more profound than guessing games and literary puzzles in mind. These eight stories, chronologically sequenced, follow the unnamed narrator from his formative years as an aspiring boy poet (he quotes some lines from a poem titled, naturally, "Love and Obstacles") through his relocation to Chicago just before the siege of Sarajevo and on to his achievement of some literary accomplishment. The protagonist testifies to the inspiration of Conrad and Rimbaud (he calls The Drunken Boat "my bible"), making more contemporary references to Led Zeppelin and Sonic Youth as well. Throughout, he deals with the challenges of art, the essence of identity and the "merciless passing of time." He contrasts the loftiness of literature with his experiences as a door-to-door magazine salesman: His blue-collar customers "did not waste their time contemplating the purpose of human life; their years were spent as a tale is told: slowly, steadily, approaching the inexorable end." Though each is self-contained, the stories benefit from echoes and resonances, recurring themes and characters (particularly the narrator's parents). Complicated relationships with other artists-an establishedpoet, a documentary filmmaker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist-underscore the twists of truth and fiction, the slippery slopes of memory and identity. Not as ambitious as The Lazarus Project, but no work by Hemon is a minor effort.
If this collection of stories is any indication, the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon is suspicious of both coming-of-age stories and the dysfunctional family memoirs that have turned out to be a publishing staple. That may be an odd way to describe a collection of linked autobiographical stories, told in the first person, that carry the Bosnian narrator from adolescence to the first flourishings of his writing career.
But Hemon seems to understand the potential for narcissism that lurks in both the coming-of-age tale and the memoir. As welcome as depictions of our adolescent awkwardness can be, if only to affirm that we were not alone in the uncertainty and embarrassments of those years, too many writers have confused callowness with charm. They expect us to be won over by lumpen young protagonists, usually male, whose shallow souls are often as pimply as their faces. And the torrent of family memoirs that shows no signs of abating can make you wonder if we will see some kind of affirmative action for writers who had happy childhoods in order that they, too, may get a book contract.
Perhaps growing up in the waning days of the Soviet bloc and reaching adulthood during the war that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia gives a writer a larger perspective to begin with. (Hemon was visiting Chicago in 1992 and was stranded here in the United States when war broke out in Sarajevo.) For all that, Hemon is very reluctant to put himself forth as the voice of his ravaged country. "I contemplated going back to Sarajevo early in the war," says the narrator of "The Conductor," "but realized I was not and never would be needed there." There's a sense of relief in that blunt admission, especially coming right after the narrator says, of a Bosnian poet who has become a representative of his country, "If you are the greatest living Bosnian poet, if you write a poem called 'Sarajevo,' then it is your duty to stay."
Reading Love and Obstacles, it is sometimes easier to figure out what Hemon doesn't want to say than what he does. He's a gruff, hardheaded writer who isn't particularly out to charm us. But the unsparing eye he turns on his stand-in, and every other character, is what makes Hemon trustworthy, if not exactly endearing.
"Everything" finds the teenage protagonist having been designated by his family to travel by train and bus to the city of Murska Sobota and obtain a freezer chest. A conventional writer would have provided a tale that tied our guts up in knots, waiting for the young man to blow the money he's been entrusted with before heading home broke and shamed. Hemon's narrator completes his mission; no catastrophe awaits him or the relations who have put their faith in him. That doesn't mean he escapes a sense of shame. Bursting with an excess of hormones unmatched by common sense, he gets knee-walking drunk and, in the wee hours, bangs on the door of the buxom American tourist staying across the hall in his faded pile of a hotel. Chastened by the ancient night porter, he winds up hung over and embarrassed, failing miserably in his fantasies of being footloose in the big city -- or at least footloose in Murska Sobota.
The tale ends with what turns out to be a Hemon trademark, the deflating deadpan punchline:
The freezer chest arrived after seventeen days. We filled it to the brim: veal and pork, lamb and beef, chicken and peppers. When the war began in the spring of 1992, and electricity in the city of Sarajevo was cut, everything in the freezer chest thawed, rotted in less than a week, and finally perished.
That unmistakable but understated metaphor for the waste of war is a sharp way of avoiding the graphic descriptions of casualties we expect in war fiction. (It may also reflect Hemon's feeling that it would be dishonest to describe what so many of his countrymen saw while he was safely in the U.S.)
Such deliberate distance from the subject at hand can be also in seen in "The Conductor," which peaks with Hemon's descriptions of preening young poets hanging out in cafés, and the narrator who dreams of joining them. "I'd totter home alone, composing a poem that would show them all that Muhamed D. had nothing on me, that would make Aida, Selma, and Ljilja regret never having let me touch them." This section of the story is funnier, more exacting, and more compact than the similar comedy of young poets that opens Roberto Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives."
The trouble, though, is that Hemon's distance results in a book that's difficult to warm up to. Love and Obstacles has passion, but passion that is expressed in gnarled disgust, thwarted hopes, drunken bitterness, and, it must be said, the heavy-spirited gloom that the Eastern European soul seems particularly prone to. The final two stories in the collection, "Death of the American Commando" and "The Noble Truths of Suffering," come close to the self-absorption the book has avoided until that point, partly because they are steeped in the backbiting nastiness of the literary world.
But it also must be said that, finally, the unsatisfying conclusion doesn't diminish Love and Obstacles. Hemon will never be called a companionable writer. You don't live the life he has and come out of it ready to make nice. I don't want that to suggest that the tragedy of Sarajevo was, for Hemon, some kind of literary boon. But when American readers have become used to exquisite writing that seems to have no concerns outside of style, a writer who has been forced to look outside of himself counts for something. Reading this hardheaded book is like spending time with a friend who has never quite learned how to carry on a polite conversation. It's occasionally exasperating, but you know you're not wasting your time. --Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor has written for numerous publications including Salon, the Boston Phoenix, and The New York Times Book Review.
Praise for Love and Obstacles
A New York Times Notable Book
"You may feel nearly giddy with pleasure at how beautifully written, funny, and entertaining [these stories] are, and at the depths of tenderness and seriousness swirling beneath their wry, deceptively offhand surface." Francine Prose, O, the Oprah Magazine
"Marvelous and original... Hemon writes with a peculiar grace, somehow both reckless and unflinching, both troublingly absurd and absolutely precise." The Boston Globe
"The stories are scarred elegies, quickened with poetry, anger, violence, wistful love, and, throughout, Hemon's extraordinary lyric freedom." San Francisco Chronicle
"Reviewers find it difficult to resist comparing Aleksandar Hemon to Nabokov, since both men [have a] preternatural facility in their second, acquired language." The Washington Post