I don't know if he is really a genius. I don't know where that bar is set these days. Technically speaking, I suppose genius is determined by an IQ test. I'm just a few painful points shy of the mark, so it's entirely plausible, even probable, that Hemon has hit it. But I don't know for certain. Nor can I speak to any comparisons to Joseph Conrad or Vladimir Nabokov, other than to say that I don't really like those writers very much.
People say he is a genius because of his freakish language-acquisition skills. Which are quite freakish indeed.
The cynic in me also suspects that people say he is a genius because of his refugee-ish status. We like a bit of hagiography to go along with our genocides. I mean jesus christ, the poor guy is BOSNIAN! Isn't it terrible what his people have been through?! When it comes to white European nations, Americans find the slaughter of innocents an act of unmitigated evil. So here we have before us a shockingly talented refugee come here to live the American Dream and he likes to write about Us. Give this man a column in The New Yorker!
Here are his short stories published in The New Yorker.
I will refer to the author as "Sasha" because 1) that's how he is always introduced, 2) I have this little kink about Slavic diminutives and 3) then we rhyme.
"Uhm, so, what does he write?"
Briefly, he writes about living in Sarajevo and Chicago and about being, for lack of a better term, Eastern European and other things as well. Genre? The contents of his books may be autobiographical or fantasy or parable or historical fact; they are shelved in the fiction section, but I think the label "creative writing" is about the only useful description here. Form? Vignettes, anecdotes, memories, jokes, dreams, observations, invented newspaper articles, etc... His writing resists chronology and whatever your expectations are about narrative arcs. Style? Touching but not sappy, insightful but not haughty, funny but not funny haha funny. Also, the words "peevishly" and "akimbo" are used a lot. Which I like because they are fun to say. Peevish... Say it.
"Ok, so, what's so great about him?"
There are many reasons that I adore the work of Sasha Hemon and they have nothing to do with genius awards, inventive post-modern writing genres, or Bosnia, of which I still don't really even know the location, since Wikipedia keeps demanding I don't confuse the "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" with "Bosnia and Herzegovina" or "Bosnia (region)," which are all different things somehow, and somehow there is "Republika Srpska" inside one of these Bosnian entities but it is not to be confused with the "Republika Srbija," which is a whole separate country and apparently at one time all of these plus the Ukraine belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All I know is that there was a war (why?) and now Sasha Hemon lives with us and not you.
"I'll repeat the question."
~Ok, some of the reasons are very narcissistic. He writes about my town, my neighborhood, my experiences. That street he is writing about? I live on it. That bus? I take it. That cafe? I sit in it. That beach? That's my beach. Those people? I know them. That dynamic within that group of study abroad students? I know all about that. That guy canvassing for Greenpeace? He was my roommate. Those Eastern European immigrants at the ESL center? I tutored them. I mean, sometimes it's just creepy. Like I'm reading my own journal, only written by a complete stranger. His works are often semi-autobiographical, and it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the author and his characters (he says he has this problem too.) But the odds are that I've unwittingly run into at least one of them at some point.
~Even more narcissistic is the fact that the backdrop and props are not just the same, but often so are our (mine and the fictional -maybe- characters') reactions to them, often variations of fear, paranoia, existential alienation, enchantment or daydreaming. If I went further with this, it would sound very pretentious and ... sad. So I won't. But if you read all the way through this, it appears there exists a perfectly rational explanation.
~His mastery of the language is impressive and would be even if he were a native speaker. The fact that he learned English as an adult just knocks the breath out of you a little bit. You know how I am about good prose. His prose will kick your ass it is so good. Have you read any English-language fiction recently? It makes me want to rip my eyes out. Either there is no talent left, or the talented have all been shipped to one of those secret CIA detention centers in Europe. There really aren't many talented writers in America who are not from Bosnia and living up the street from me.
~There is this concept of sevdah, which he describes as "pleasant soul pain, when you are at peace with your woeful life, which allows you to enjoy this very moment with abandon." This is a specifically Bosnian concept, perhaps, only in the nuances inaccessible to someone like me. But I think it is a version of a peculiarly Eastern European (I'm not getting into it here DoDo. I'm talking about culture, not geography.) concept. Or theme. Whatever that intangible, untranslatable mood or mentality is that sucks me into Slavic literature like a junkie into an opium den, it's in the work of Sasha Hemon. "Pleasant soul pain, when you are at peace with your woeful life, which allows you to enjoy this very moment with abandon" sounds about right.
Here's an excerpt from an interview he did for Salon.
More spilled spaghetti: Aleksandar Hemon, author of "The Question of Bruno," talks about his favorite spies and the need for messiness in American fiction.
April 27, 2000 | Aleksandar Hemon attributes his astonishing mastery of English (he arrived in America eight years ago with only a rudimentary knowledge of the language) to a job he had canvassing for Greenpeace in Chicago, the city that he now loves and calls home. "There was this period of intense speaking, producing words on the spot without rehearsing. I was not a person who enjoyed public discourse. I became a mature human being here, an older, and presumably wiser, person in English."
And Hemon has been good to English, as well, as the recent publication of his short-story collection, "The Question of Bruno," conclusively proves. It's a book full of peculiar and yet startlingly apt phrases ("the pungent, sneezeful greenness of green onions," for example). It's also a book of shifting, elusive moods, whether Hemon is writing about a childhood enthusiasm for the Russian master spy Richard Sorge; the sentimental, boozy expansiveness of a Bosnian family reunion; the absurd, horror of life in Sarajevo during the war; or the almost psychedelically vivid perceptions of a recent immigrant who sees American objects in starker relief partly because he doesn't know the names of any of them. Salon reached Hemon by phone at his home in Chicago, where he regards the publication of "The Question of Bruno" with unflappable aplomb.
You were writing fiction before you came to the U.S., but since your recent work is so much about loss and culture shock, I assume it must have been about something else. What?
It was some kind of minimalist shit. The stories were kind of pared down, a response to what was going on around me and so kind of nihilistic, too. They were not very good. A book of my short stories was supposed to come out [in Bosnia] in the summer of '92. Stopping that was the best thing the war ever did. They were a symptom of helplessness. There was so much overwhelming stuff around there was really no point in writing stories. They had this inherent meaninglessness that I couldn't overcome. One of them was about Kafka's death. It was dreadful. Here I was in my 20s writing about the meaning of life and death.
You have a close, almost obsessive attention to detail and to capturing the qualities of objects and places, which isn't surprising since you're often trying to hold on to a lost time and a lost world, particularly when you're writing about Sarajevo. Yet even when you seem to be yearning for the past, you tend to pick out things to describe that are gross, even disgusting.
Most people who are in a comfortable situation of having a continuous life, they imagine their lives in the best possible way, even if the objects in that life weren't exactly like that. But if you look at it closely, if you have to remember because if you don't things may disappear, you remember in a kind of panic and you don't know what may show up on the surface of your memory. People who have involuntary memories of things like child abuse -- I don't have that, but I'd bet they remember details very vividly. Smells and touches and textures. Something that doesn't allow them to remember it comfortably. There's a man pissing under my window right now.
That's like the kind of detail I was talking about.
He's also pushing an ice cream cart. Serendipity, the mother of knowledge.
I developed a cruel hatred for Willa Cather after her 20th detailed description of the juniper bushes in the desert. Hemon's "details" are not that of a novelist trying to fill space or describe in words what can easily be captured in a picture. They are the details of an environment as seen through the eyes of a mouse caught in a trap, or a person in a foreign country, or someone who has just awoke from a nightmare and is searching the room for the devil or the kid in the schoolroom who's just been told of his leader's death. When there is so much confusion in the moment that your brain begins taking inventory of everything on autopilot so you can make some sense of it later, when unusual circumstances have you ascribing unusual meaning to ordinary objects and events. ... Like a child who has been abused, I guess. Yes. That makes sense.
When people ask me who my favorite author is, I sheepishly say "Dostoevsky." Sheepishly, because it sounds fucking pretentious. But it's true. Because he could see the world through the eyes of an abused child.
That's also true about the effect of canvassing, btw.
"Ok, I'm sold, or have decided to humour you, hoping you'll stop soon. What do you recommend I read, then?"
Uhm. All of it. The books are small things.
His first book was The Question of Bruno. Don't ask me what it is about. It's about many things. Stylistically, it's his most creative work. The character of Jozef Pronek is introduced.
One passage I remember from it is a scene in which Pronek goes to retrieve his coat from the Art Institute of Chicago's coat-check, and worries that the coat he's been given might not be his, that it might be an exact replica. And how would he ever know? And now he's stressing out about having to create all new memories for his new coat...
I was working at a bookstore when Hemon's first book was published. But I think I must have read his second book, Nowhere Man first, because I distinctly remember 1) feeling a deep, intense connection to the book and 2) being very demanding about making other people read it. Like a Jehovah's witness. Anyway, it may be about Joseph Pronek, or it may be about the Devil or it may be about Sasha Hemon. Who knows? It's brilliant, though.
One passage I remember from it is a letter Pronek receives from his childhood friend in Sarajevo, who describes watching a horse commit suicide, jumping off a cliff, during the war.
For those of you who are my fans/stalkers, you can check out my city/neighborhood in The Pronek Guide to Chicago, which pairs these wonderfully gritty black and white photos with passages from the book.
I can't talk about Hemon without mentioning Veba Bozovic, whose photography I only first saw in The Lazarus Project, which featured them and photographs from the Chicago Historical Society. But apparently Bozovic has taken photos for all of Hemon's books. I'm mad about his spooky photography. He doesn't try to make Chicago prettier or more interesting than it is in reality, but it maintains a dream-like (nightmare-like?) quality. In movies, one sometimes sees a scene from the perspective of a wolf. These photos remind me of that.
Not content with a simple guidebook, The Lazarus Project has an accompanying ... slide show!
His third and most recent book is The Lazarus Project. It's crazy meta-meta, about the story of a Russian Jewish immigrant in Chicago in 1908 who is killed by the police for being an anarchist (he wasn't) and a Hemon-like writer and his Bozovic-like photographer friend living in Chicago in 2008, who decide to go back to Eastern Europe to research the life of the murdered immigrant. Ostensibly.
A couple of memorable passages: after 9-11, the observation of a mentally ill street person wearing a "United we stand!" sticker on his forehead, "his multiple personalities united for the war against terror;" the Hemon-like character walking into the kitchen in the middle of the night and seeing a can of "Sadness," which later turns out to be a can of sardines. But it is too late: the psychological damage caused by the fear that they're mass-producing sadness for retail is already done.
I went to a reading. Hemon talked about memories, and trying to figure out what is invention and what is true, trying to construct history from other people's memories of the past and trying to hold onto your memories and identity in a strange place where no one is around who shares your memories, no one who can confirm them or deny them. His parents were there at the reading; that was charming. I guess they will be able to confirm he was there.
Here is something else, kind of random: "Sarajevo Is..."
Here is Hemon saying something about war: For Wife of Bath, who thinks he's "definitely hot." ;)
I have no idea why Serbs were fighting with Bosnians or even who was fighting and killing whom. It makes me sad. I don't think things happen for a reason, always a good reason being implied. Wars start because people pick up guns and start killing each other, not because the universe has a personal will and wants this one person to find greatness at the expense of everyone else. I don't take the position that if it weren't for a chain of events sparked by the war in the Balkans, the world would be missing this literary genius. Maybe a literary genius or two or more perished in the war. Hemon could have chosen to return to Sarajevo and could have had his head blown off. Or he could have decided to move to New York and gone into marketing. I'm not grateful for the circumstances under which your genius from Sarajevo came to be living in and writing about my Chicago. Or for any of the unfortunate circumstances under which centuries of immigrants have found themselves in this godforsaken country. It makes me sad.
It makes Sasha Hemon write. Which is something to be grateful for.