January 19, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon.
Reading next: Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.
I find it somehow hard to write about Hemon’s work. This is not for lack of interesting ideas or techniques or even a lack of correspondence between my interests and his. If anything, there’s too much to say: I like thinking about his idiosyncratic methods of narration, his strange way of inserting himself and/or people with his name into his stories, his kinship with the great Bruno Schulz, his treatment of memory and childhood, his crazy surrealistic flourishes, the very specific details of Chicago in his stories, etc. And yet somehow he defeats me: I could write about all of these things, and would like to, but it seems somehow beside the point.
This is a good thing, I think.
The experience of reading Aleksandar Hemon is strange. I read Nowhere Man (his second book, after this one) a few years ago, and had the same kind of feeling then. It always seems both vitally important and beside the point who is telling a Hemon story: the story typically works, and works beautifully, as the product of an anonymous Bosnian narrator, but can have additional resonance or a transformed meaning if a specific narrator is deduced. For someone as interested in espionage and the breakup of the Soviet Union as Hemon is, the ways in which he reveals or seems to reveal his stories’ tellers can create a fascinating narrative of its own.
For instance, “The Sorge Spy Ring” tells of the great, non-fictional spy, Richard Sorge, a Soviet agent in Japan before World War II. It tells Sorge’s story in footnotes, which are entertaining but more or less scholarly in tone and nature. The footnotes, provoked by incidental correspondencies in the main text (the word “mother” leads to a footnote on the character of Sorge’s mother, along with the Sebaldian touch of a photograph of her), occur in a text about a boy who loves spy games, and comes to suspect his father is a spy in Tito’s Yugoslavia.
There’s reason to believe that the boy telling this story is Jozef Pronek, the protagonist of “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls,” the masterpiece at the heart of this book, and also of most of Nowhere Man. Pronek’s story is narrated by a self-consciously omnipresent (but only semi-omniscient) “We,” which operates like a surveillance team, switching camera angles to view him and dropping in comments on his thoughts and predicaments. There’s also this surreal touch, as Pronek looks at the miniature rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago:
…he was the only one to see a minikin figure, with long white hair, and an impish mini-grin, running across the miniature room. Pronek could hear the tapping, the barely audible, evanescent, echoes of the creature’s tiny steps, which then disappeared into the garden.
Doubtless, a hallucination.
Is this an operative, monitoring Pronek? Is Hemon equating fiction with espionage?
Perhaps because they are so often matter-of-fact about horrible and beautiful things alike, his stories can sometimes seem flat, or somehow I’ll read them and not be immediately affected by them. It’s only when I look back at them, review and reread sections, that they gel for me and I see how brilliant they are. In this collection, “Islands” and “Imitation of Life,” the first and last stories, were especially like that for me. But really, I can open to any page of this book and find something incredible that my mind somehow passed over. For instance, I open to p. 184, scan, and remember how the words “rotting,” “decay,” and “filthy” seem to be everywhere in “Blind Jozef,” and how strange this seems, considering that Jozef has escaped from Sarajevo into Chicago. And yet it is somehow just right: uncannily correct, like so much of Hemon.
I feel like the key to all this might be that the stories tell themselves so effectively that my words seem beside the point. The experience of reading them cannot be recaptured by my breaking them down into their constituent parts: they’re gestalt-ish, I guess.