Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon was plowing his way through the United States to visit a girlfriend in Chicago when Sarajevo came under attack. Suddenly stuck, he turned to menial jobs and writing autobiographical fiction in English, a language he’d only just learned. First-time reminiscence is often graced, and these savage, satisfying and painfully funny stories merge Balkan remembrance with perception of Chicago as an alien nation.
The nine-year-old Hemon of the opening story visits his bee-keeping Uncle Julius on the island of Mljet. The descriptive talent is uncanny from the start. On the trip: “The ship leapt over humble waves.” On a dog devouring a mongoose: “…I saw the heart, like a tiny tomato.” Later teenage fantasies produce comic nihilist Alphonse Kauders, author of “Anal Sex and Revolution,” and an elaborate variation on the story of real-life Soviet spy Richard Sorge, concocted to help distract from his father’s arrest.
“The trouble with the Hemons,” Hemon’s mother tells him at a bizarre family gathering, “is that they get much too excited about things they imagine to be real.” But sniper-filled Sarajevo and odd Chicago are real enough. As is Hemon’s linguistic dismay: “How awkward and cumbersome I feel in English, sinking in syntax, my sentences flapping helplessly, liking a drowning child’s arms…” Beautiful drowning indeed.
In “Blind Joe Pronek and the Dead Souls,” bewildered and sarcastic Jozef Pronek, “our foreign friend,” Hemon in a cloak, morphs into a beady-eyed Balkan ET who pauses to crook his neck at American absurdities. Flight attendants are “paid per smile.” Snow-blowers are “insectile machines.” A small child runs around a museum shouting “awesome baby!” “What kind of evolutional soup did these people emerge from?” wonders the “freedom-loving writer” who never feels quite at home aboard “the American dream train.”
Though Hemon has produced exceptional work in a nimble career (including “Nowhere Man” and “Love and Other Obstacles”), this, writing-wise, is as good as it gets.