Aleksandar Hemon can be a stolid prose writer, which makes the extraordinary acclaim accorded him a puzzlement. His compelling backstory may be part of it: Young Bosnian journalist stranded in America when war breaks out at home improbably teaches himself to write literary fiction in English — a rare achievement that places him in the company of titans the likes of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov.
Hemon is undoubtedly a serious writer, worthy of serious attention, as evidenced by his last novel, The Lazarus Project (2008), a National Book Award finalist. It’s an ambitious work, with Bosnian and American themes, but it also features a heavy-footed narrative marching intently to one destination after another.
Perhaps Hemon is more comfortable in the short-story form, but that lumpish quality is almost entirely absent from his new collection. Love and Obstacles is written in a nimble and entertaining style.
Like most of Hemon’s work, the stories here are autobiographical, swinging back and forth—sometimes in the same tale—from the life of an aspiring writer in Bosnia to his struggles as an involuntary immigrant in America. The best, “Death of the American Commando”, covers an impressive range of time and material.
A successful Bosnian-cum-American writer is being interviewed by a young Bosnian ex-pat documentary filmmaker. Under her scrutiny, he tells a long anecdote from childhood, regarding juvenile delinquencies with other boys that proves a crucial point in the development of his character.
It’s a terrifically rewarding story, as are many others. “The Bees, Part 1” derives much pathos by examining the author’s father through his apiary obsessions. “Szmura’s Room” humanizes the trials facing a Bosnian refugee and the odd and violent American who gives him a place to stay. “The Conductor” is a portrait of the author as a neophyte and his relationship with an alcoholic Bosnian poet of great accomplishment.
Hemon’s pieces are full of concise observation and turns of phrase, as in this description of a hated construction-site guard eating lunch: “He munched detachedly, without appetite, as though the purpose of chewing was to make his jaw less lonely.”
Given the degree of autobiographical content, and the apparent lack of shaping imagination, several of these pieces seem more sketches than short stories. But that’s not necessarily a negative criticism. The sketch, in which a person’s character is displayed through anecdote rather than dissected through imaginative storytelling, is a genre with a long and respectable tradition. Hemon makes the most of it.