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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Aleksandar Hemon’s “Love and Obstacles”

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Like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, two novelists lauded for their success in adopting English as a second language and adding to its literary canon, Aleksandar Hemon outstrips most writers for whom English is the native tongue. Though his prose is not as fervid or rigorous as the Russian forebear, Hemon mines his adopted language for dusty gems, requiring the average reader (this one not excepted) to keep a dictionary within arm's reach.

Born in Sarajevo in 1964, Hemon, as the story goes, began writing in English out of necessity during what became a permanent visit to the United States in 1992. When civil war broke out in Sarajevo, it was impossible to return home. He remained in Chicago, and published his first story in English in 1995. He subsequently wrote two collections of short stories and one novel.

Hemon's fourth book, Love and Obstacles, is an octet of episodic short stories that are so connected it is difficult not to call them chapters. Their common narrator, like the first-person protagonists of Hemon's other works, mirrors the author's basic biographical facts: A writer, born in Sarajevo, comes to Chicago in 1992. War breaks out; the writer contends with the indignities of odd jobs in a subtly inhospitable America.

Beset by more obstacles than love, the accidental immigrant occupies a border town between fact and fiction. Once young and precocious, then a frustrated, unpublished poet, our narrator spends time in bars jockeying for position among Bosnia's literary elite before abandoning poetry in a garbage can and leaving for the United States. Displaced and dejected, he maintains self-effacing wit. On his poetry: "I liked their titles ("Peter Pan and the Lesbians," "Love and Obstacles," etc.)… I was waiting for readers to evolve, I suppose, to the point where they could grasp the vast spaces of my ego."

Hemon is a writer's writer, and in Love and Obstacles, his prose embodies the narrator's poetic voice-few actions remain unembroidered without adverbs; even fewer nouns lay unadorned. Under his pen, rust is "psoriatic," a velvet sofa is "perused"; Hemon manages to exploit the visual possibilities and peculiarities of language without teetering on absurdity. He is equally concerned with the mellifluous cadence of words; his prose glitters with alliteration. Despite Hemon's-and the narrator's-challenges as a displaced person, the language barrier is not among them.

Hemon, who comes across a bit reticent in interviews, reads from and signs copies of Love and Obstacles at Boswell Book Company on Friday, July 10, at 7 p.m.

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