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The Music of the Mind

By (July 1, 2009) No Comment

Love and Obstacles

By Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead, 2009

I’m sure every book reviewer relishes the moment when he or she may demonstrate how James Wood, the stately yet ultimately staid New Yorker mainstay, is dead wrong. So, here goes: in his 2008 essay “The Unforgotten: Aleksandar Hemon’s Fictional Lives,” Wood badly exaggerates the quality of Hemon’s prose. Although he rightly draws attention to the “polish, lustre, and sardonic control of register” in Hemon’s writing, Wood’s assessment that “the feat of his reinvention exceeds” Nabokov’s is not only overstatement but an overused comparison. He sets up the straw man of an imagined Nabokov oeuvre, one that’s presumably embedded with dazzling encrustations of language at the expense of narrative flow, emotional resonance, epiphanic denouements, etc., and then fireballs it with a comparison to Hemon’s supposedly superior syntactical style. But let’s do a taste test of our own. From Nabokov’s Bend Sinister:  

When the November wind has its recurrent icy spasm, a rudimentary vortex of ripples creases the brightness of the puddle. Two leaves, two triskelions, like two shuddering three-legged bathers coming at a run for a swim, are borne by their impetus right into the middle where with a sudden slowdown they float quite flat. Twenty minutes past four. View from a hospital window.

November trees, poplars, I imagine, two of them growing straight out of the asphalt: all of them in the cold bright sun, bright richly furrowed bark and an intricate sweep of numberless burnished bare twigs, old gold—because getting more of the falsely mellow sun in the higher air. Their immobility is in contrast with the spasmodic ruffling of the inset reflection—for the visible emotion of a tree is the mass of its leaves, and there remain hardly more than thirty-seven or so here and there on one side of the tree. They just flicker a little, of a neutral tint, but burnished by the sun to the same ikontinct as the intricate trillions of twigs. Swooning blue of the sky crossed by pale motionless superimposed cloud wisps.

The operation has not been successful and my wife will die.

While the argument may certainly be made that this passage is overdone, its baroque qualities are neither burdensome nor clunky, and have an atmospheric lightness and a rhythmic flow (accomplished through assonance and alliteration) that’s largely missing from Hemon’s often mechanical flights of language.

Legend has it Hemon learned English by reading Nabokov, “looking up words he didn’t know.” What an extraordinary sense of agency—the obsessive devices of the autodictact (imagine learning French through Proust, Polish through Bruno Schulz or, German through Rilke). But, where the Nabokov connection begins is also where it ends, and Hemon’s new collection of linked stories Love and Obstacles is peppered with such outright clunkers as “A tableau of panting, unctuous bodies, limbs entangled like mating snakes,” metaphorical stretches like “his right hand hanging down from the bar like a sleeping dog’s head,” and overcooked phrases like “a veritable hillock of victuals on his plate.” Then there are the overwrought descriptions:

“By the time I went to bed, it was dawning already. In the trees outside, a nation of birds replaced the blood-sucking bats and was now atwitter in a paroxysm of meaningless life.”

“…he resembled a butcher in a poor neighborhood: a heavy, fat-rounded head, large ears with meaty earlobes, blood speckles on his mercilessly scraped face.”

“He began his recitation in a susurrus voice, riding a tide of iambic throttles and weighted caesuras up to thunderous orgasmic heights, from where he returned to a whisper and…”

You get the idea. Actually, taken out of context, these passages aren’t so bad (okay, “atwitter in a paroxysm of meaningless life” is too much) but reading fiction where hardly a noun goes by without some kind of metaphor, modification, or some other extrapolation, makes you wish for a bit more restraint. This is not to say that Hemon isn’t capable of fantastic stretches of language. His prose sometimes shines without blinding and dizzies without confusing. Here, for instance, is a passage from Love and Obstacles’ “Stairway to Heaven”:  

Aleksandar Hemon (from The Guardian)

Outside, a tremulous lightwake stretched itself toward the cataractous moon. My heart was playing the bridge from “Stairway to Heaven,” but beyond the noise in my veins, beyond the limp limbs, beyond the cold-sweating skin, was a serene flow carrying me away from everything that had been me. Up the path, past an oddly azure pool with a school of insects drowning in it, I walked back toward the restaurants.

While Hemon’s stabs at the language don’t exceed Nabokov’s inimitable prose, passages like this in Love and Obstacles brim with beauty. Using unobtrusive alliteration (“limp,” “limbs,” “skin”), rhyming (“pool,” “school”), and radiantly awkward descriptions like “Outside, a tremulous lightwake stretched itself toward the cataractous moon,” Hemon’s roaming eye ventures from the macro-view of the sky, to the music of the mind, to the skin, down to a micro-view of bugs, and then to the restaurant ahead, thereby achieving its own kind of “serene flow.” And hidden within Love and Obstacles are evocative miniatures like “Light filtered through the whisky bottle, and an ocher penumbra flickered on the table.” Note the mirroring quality of this last sentence, the reflective interplay of the words “filtered” and “flickered,” how those short i’s sound a veritable whisper. However, unlike these carefully mined and refined sentences, Hemon’s weaker embellishments glitter like so much pyrite.

Love and Obstacles’ stories themselves are a kind of hyper-sexed take on the familiar coming-of-age story form, albeit from the perspectives of an emaciated Sarajevo and then from a gluttonous United States. While the 1992 Bosnian war is one of the subtexts underlying Love and Obstacles’ eight linked stories, it is adolescent angst, loneliness, sudden awareness and revelation, and humor which suffuse these stories, and linger long after any feelings about the war. In “Stairway to Heaven,” we first meet a Hemon stand-in named Bogdan, an angst-ridden teenager living in Zaire where his diplomat father has been called to assignment. It’s where his love encounters the first of its many obstacles and where he first loses his innocence. In “Everything,” we follow Bogdan, now a “budding poet,” back home, where he still listens to Led Zeppelin. He’s charged by his parents with an important task and, echoing the familiar hero’s journey template, embarks on a fateful trip. The brusque, sarcastic narrator describes his youth as “a perpetual sense of unease that made me imagine a place where my discomfort would be natural, where I would wallow in my wounds, in heavy air and sea.” He’s a frustrated writer (we find later that Love and Obstacles gets its name from one of his failed poems) who trades Conrad for Rimbaud, whose “rants about the unknown quantity awakening in our era’s universal soul, the soul encompassing everything: scents, sounds, colors, thought mounting thought, etcetera” serve as inspirations for volleys against his parents. By the time he gives up poetry in “The Conductor,” he meets a ring of established poets in Bosnia, and is subsequently haunted in other stories by Dedo, the ad-hoc leader of the group.

We meet Bogdan in Sarajevo again in the last story where he’s attending a reception for a fictional Pulitzer Prize winning writer Richard Macalister. We also meet Hemon’s cartoonlike descriptions once again. There is the uniformed jaran’s head that “resembled an armchair—the deep-set forehead, the handlebar-like ears, the jutted jaw seat,” and the minister of culture who resembles “a bald, mangy panda,” the ambassador with the “small, puckered-asshole mouth,” Macalister who “had a head of Bakelite-black hair, so unyielding it seemed it had been mounted on his head decades before and had not changed its form since,” and the Bosnian woman who had “meaty carmine lips and a cluster of darkened-silver necklaces and a ruby pendant struggling to sink into her bosom.” But, the story is not without its sparkling moments. In response to Macalister’s off-the-cuff putdown of Sarajevo, the narrator offers this beautifully effusive passage:

But what about the Gazi Husrevbegova fountain, whose water tastes like no other in the world? What about all the minarets lighting up simultaneously on a Ramadan day? And the snow falling slowly, each flake coming down patiently, separately, as if abseiling down an obscure silky thread? What about the morning clatter of the wooden shutters in Baščaršija, when the old stores are opening at the same time and the streets smell of thick-foamed coffee?

Here, the images are vivid without the garish finish. Absent are the associative leaps that sometimes make Hemon’s prose difficult to believe—the death knell for a writer. And behind this pouring out is a passionate welling of memory, romance, and sensitivity. The image of snowflakes falling like spiders is a particularly resonant one. Unfortunately, Bogdan keeps these thoughts to himself, and afterwards fails again when he tries to impress Macalister by asking whether he’d read his New Yorker story “Love and Obstacles.”

Bogdan, drunk, later manages to convince Macalister to join him on an escapade around Sarajevo. Sitting in a smoky restaurant, Bogdan learns from him that “[t]here was nothing to know, nothing on the other side. There was no walker, no path, just walking. This was it, whoever you were, wherever you were, whatever it was, and you had to make peace with that fact.” In other words: wherever you go, there you are.

By far the strongest story in Love and Obstacles is “The Bees, Part 1.” It is a love letter, a painting done in melancholic hues. In a series of journal entries, the narrator offers vignettes indelibly capturing his inventive and troubled father:

To my father’s creative biography I should add his carpentry, which frequently reached poetic heights: more than once we witnessed him caressing or kissing a piece of wood he was able to transform into a shelf, a stool, or a beehive frame; not infrequently, he forced me to touch and then smell a “perfect” piece of wood; he demanded that I appreciate the smooth knotlessness, its natural scent. For Father, a perfect world consisted of objects you could hold in your hand.

The father, for whom “the truth” is the most important thing, distrusts literature, considers “the whole concept a scam.” Not only that words—whose tangibility is precarious at best—were what it was all made from, but those words were used to render “what never happened.” Ironically, the words used to tell this story prove the father wrong, for they bring all the characters and settings to life. This story’s loose flow, discontinuous narrative, and plaintive reminiscences reminded me of Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror. Its unobtrusive voice, free from lacquered decorations, free from the obstacles keeping this reader from loving the rest of the book, is perhaps the voice of the mature Hemon, a voice that seeks less to dazzle than to illuminate.

John Madera is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in elimae, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, New Pages, and forthcoming in The Diagram and Little White Poetry Journal. You may find him at hitherandthithering waters and editing The Chapbook Review. He sings and plays guitar for Mother Flux.

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