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Daniel Soar

  • The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon
    Picador, 230 pp, £12.99, April 2000, ISBN 0 330 39347 2

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo in 1914 by a young Serb called Gavrilo Princip – and so the First World War began. Jaroslav Hasek, writing in the early 1920s, added a soldier called Schweik, who discusses the assassination over a drink in a tavern in a far-flung part of Austria-Hungary, remarking how well the job had been done, because it isn’t easy to shoot an archduke, though it’s not so bad if he’s fat, since the target is larger; he is promptly hauled up before the police. Schweik blunders his way through his novel and the history of his times, always on the sidelines, but somehow causing more trouble than he’s aware of. Now we have an accordion player called Hemon, who features (twice) as one of the adoring crowd watching Franz Ferdinand’s progress through Sarajevo – and as Aleksandar Hemon’s possibly mythical, possibly fictional great-grandfather.

The bit-part player, the fool, traversing the grand sweep of history without knowing what he’s involved in, is a good tool for showing history’s madness. The toothless 112-year-old Jack Crabb in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, played in the movie by Dustin Hoffman, tells the story of the 19th century in the American West as he saw it, as a soldier killing Indians, as a salesman, as an adopted Indian himself. A professional chameleon, he falls from one role into another, unaware of the discontinuities involved: you can’t fight for both General Custer and Chief Lodge Skins, believing all the time in what you’re fighting for, and stay the same person. To transcend faction you have to be schizophrenic or, more precisely, you have to learn to forget, so that you can become someone else. With forgetfulness can come a way of looking at familiar things as if for the first time, making them seem new and strange. The genre of epic footnotery, because it depends on forgetful nobodies, often includes this way of looking. It’s Craig Raine’s favourite trick, and his epic effort, History: The Home Movie, combines it, significantly, with a trawl through the bit-part procession of his ancestors. In The Question of Bruno, his first collection of stories – inventive, often lunatic, but warm – Hemon does the same, mixing family myths with a Martian look at Bosnia and America: place is his precinct as much as time.

Hemon was born in Sarajevo in 1964, the son of a Bosnian mother and a Ukrainian father. He became a journalist, and in 1992 was invited to Chicago on a writers’ exchange programme. On the day he was due to fly back, Sarajevo was besieged, and on his family’s advice he stayed put. He worked as a waiter and a canvasser for Greenpeace, then in a bookshop, and set himself the task of learning to write in English. When he arrived in America his English was school standard, but he learned quickly: three years later he published his first story, and there’s very little in The Question of Bruno that’s not worked and polished into technically faultless English. Very occasionally a sentence doesn’t pass the test (‘How is this related to his decision, we cannot fathom’; ‘He realised that he was invisible, and he desired being watched’), but these mistakes are reassuring. His newness to words can work to his advantage, making them look crazy, as if you’d never seen them before. ‘Pronek’s neck was stiffer than ever, at this point practically petrified’: the strict etymological definition is preferred, leaving the colloquial meaning hanging there, unused. Sometimes it can all seem too much, but Hemon is having fun: since he’s got it, he flaunts it, and superfluity is part of his game. The phrase ‘molasses of silence’ occurs at least three times in the book, which you could call three times too many, but it’s not accidental: there are also ‘molasses of bees’, large amounts of honey and many, many stains – a preponderance of goo. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but the words fit the subject: you get the feeling that the writing wouldn’t be very different in another language, while wondering whether his next book might not be less good for being better written.

‘Islands’, the first piece and not the best, points the way into the writing. It describes a family trip to Mljet, off the Yugoslav coast, when the narrator is nine, and is written in short numbered fragments. They don’t come together to tell a story: they’re little glimpses, like microscope slides. There is ‘a small, orderly garden with stout tomato stalks, like sentries, alongside the path’, followed in the next section by ‘concrete steps on the side of the house, with sharp step edges and pots of unconcerned flowers, like servants with candles, on the bannister side’. You can’t help wondering what these ponderous, nearly identical similes are doing side by side. They stand for a nine-year-old’s way of looking at the world, where things that could be small and familiar seem big and frightening. When objects are looked at from close enough, everything appears much the same, which is why the metaphors are repeated with only slight variations. The words go overboard with the ‘bashful whisper of waves, echoes of sourceless music, warbling of boat motors’, but the warbling motors are saved by a metaphor that comes a little later, ‘cicadas were revving’: despite all the specificity, objects escape from their bounds, and a description that should apply to one thing is transferred to another. The beautiful is as sickening in this story as the horrific, and some objects, seen in close-up, teeter between the two: a dead bee goes round and round in the coffee the boy has stirred; a white slug is frozen on a wall; a black carafe of wine stands on the table ‘like an axis’ around which the grown-ups are laughing and talking.

Repetition and variation have their narrative counterpart, too – and The Question of Bruno isn’t so much a collection of short stories as a series of versions of the same thing; it’s a characteristic of the fools of epic that they keep returning to square one after being laid low by events. The quintessential fool here is the suffering and lovable hero of ‘Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls’. Pronek, a Bosnian writer, arrives in Washington on a writers’ exchange programme with only a few words of English, and when war breaks out at home finds himself forced to stay. (Sounds familiar?) He takes on a few jobs, finds a part-time girlfriend and lives in an apartment where he and his flatmate step around a six-week-old stain of spaghetti sauce in the middle of the floor. We never really see Pronek himself, but it’s easy to imagine him as clumsy and a little too big, and, here as elsewhere in the book, all the ungainly physicality feels almost forgivable; it’s the bald, genial fat man enjoying a joke at his own expense. Poor Pronek. At least three people he passes have a copy of Seven Spiritual Laws of Growth (is this title ever so slightly unlikely?); he is continually asked what he thinks of the baseball scene, and whether America isn’t the best country in the world. His initial answer to the last question is ‘I don’t know, I just arrived’; this eventually gives way to silence, and silence is his normal state, particularly when he begins to worry that he’s passing through without being seen, that he’s disappearing. He’s an observer, not a participant – like the accordion player in Sarajevo – and this is the problem with America in the story. This fly-on-the-wall picture of a foreign country might, you think, attempt to show it in a way its citizens don’t necessarily see. But this isn’t how Hemon works: America, to Pronek, with its self-help books, baseball and optimism, is all the same and all surface. He can’t see further because America doesn’t make sense to him: he loses his job as a waiter when he mistakes iceberg lettuce for romaine. Like the little boy in ‘Islands’ he can only look. When he arrives at JFK to meet one of his hosts, all he can see is ‘the valley of baldness between the two tufts of hair, stretching away in horror from the emerging globe’. As he walks through the airport, he begins to imagine it as John F. Kennedy’s supine body, ‘with his legs and his arms outstretched, and leech-like aeroplanes sucking his toes and fingers’. It’s not a very good representation of the terror of arrival, but then Pronek is self-effacing and effaced, and this new world glowers over him, taking up all the space.

Hemon has another excuse for the shallowness of America in his book, related to the visual way he writes. ‘Imitation’, the last story, opens with a cheery joke: ‘For a long time I used to go to bed early, until my parents bought their first TV set.’ The joke has a point: in Hemon’s world, where forgotten people find themselves without a past to remember, TV and the cinema are a stand-in for memory. Pronek’s favourite film is Apocalypse Now, and as part of the exchange programme he visits the movie’s makers, who tell him about the beauty of cinematic gore and, saddened by news of Sarajevo, say they might give General Schwarzkopf a call and get him to kick some ass. It’s the (familiar) story of the flattening of life to image. After all, people all over the world watch the Americans enlarged to more than life-size. Another American Pronek meets early on reminds him of ‘the fat detective with a loose tie and an unbuttoned shirt from an American TV show’: he’s seen it all somewhere before. The other part of the image story, of course, has to do with what TV does to war. ‘A Coin’ is set mostly in Sarajevo during the siege, and is told from the point of view of a Bosnian woman called Aida, whose job it is to arrange meetings for foreign journalists and edit footage; her story is interspersed with the diary entries of her ex-boyfriend, who is living in a cockroach-infested flat in America. Aida soon learns that the most explicit images are too much for the networks and begins compiling a tape she labels ‘Cinema Inferno’, made up from all the clips she censors. This story is itself another variation on a theme (and a woman of the same name appears again as the girlfriend Pronek left behind): Pronek, like his creator, watches the war on CNN – and, wallowing in the celluloid surfaces, finds that ‘the suffering was immense and well rendered.’

Short stories, like film (where the spats stand for the villain), tend now to rely on metonymy rather than metaphor. It hasn’t always been like this: Eisenstein’s montages, of dying people intercut with dying animals, are metaphorical, and they look too obvious when you’re used to watching modern cinema. Hemon’s writing is old-fashioned, more Battleship Potemkin than Titanic: he piles on metaphors in a way that can seem over-deliberate. ‘An Exchange of Pleasant Words’, in which the various branches of the Hemon clan come together to hear their family saga (they call it the ‘Hemoniad’, and their starring ancestors include the accordion player in Sarajevo in 1914 as well as various walk-on Hemons in the Iliad and the Bible), is told with an increasing drunkenness as detail accumulates and the family members drift away in an alcoholic haze. The young narrator is filming the gathering with a video camera, and as he gets drunker and his camerawork gets wilder, you realise that what’s going on isn’t really metaphor at all. Cameras appear in most of the stories; in ‘The Sorge Spy Ring’ the word ‘zoom’ is used to signal a description in close-up: the writing describes what the camera does. In ‘The Accordion’, the story about the Archduke’s procession, we get this: ‘then the horse on the left raises its tail – embarrassingly similar to the tassel on the Archduke’s resplendent helmet – and the Archduke can see the horse’s anus slowly opening, like a camera aperture.’ The tail and the tassel are seen to be alike only because they’re next to each other: proximity is the cause of the comparison. It’s like hearing a director explain his tricks, and it’s less metaphor than a description of how a filmic metonymy works. Objects are described in an over-determined and revolting way because the world looks oddest from that angle.

The camera is intrusive, and while it gives objects a strange appearance, its effect on people is to unsettle them and make them not quite sure of who they are. ‘Islands’ ends: ‘The boy pointed the camera towards the sun, but the man jokingly admonished him, turning him, and the camera, towards us, while we grinned at him, helpless.’ Hemon’s characters aren’t used to being watched, however much they desire it. ‘The Sorge Spy Ring’ is about a boy in Bosnia (another nine-year-old) who discovers to his delight that his father is a spy – though he’s less delighted when the father is locked up; the story of Richard Sorge, the real-life spy the boy is obsessed with, is told in footnotes which sometimes swamp the text. The narrator shares Pronek’s fantasy of being under permanent video surveillance (he hopes the state is performing the Big Brother role): it’s not just the outsider in a foreign country who feels forgotten, but also the boy in his own. Aida in ‘A Coin’ transcribes a dream in which she is watching a woman on a cinema screen: ‘She is performing me, she is acting me out ... She’s not doing it right ... I can’t get up, because I don’t know what exactly is wrong. And then I realise – it’s the language, I’m confined within the wrong language.’ In the end, appropriately for Hemon, dislocation is linguistic.

Whatever language you’re in, though, there are still continuities, or at least some chance of fitting in. Pronek, exploring a Washington bathtub, is delighted to find that the rubber footprints attached to the bottom to prevent slipping fit his feet exactly, and Aida takes Kevin, an American cameraman, to see where Gavrilo Princip fired his shot, the spot marked by a cast of his feet: ‘My little feet fitted, as always, into the concrete shapes of his feet.’ Hemon doesn’t mention that Princip’s famous footprints were dug up during the Bosnian war, but that might be too distressing.