With all due respect to extravagant Scotsmen and polite Frenchmen, sometimes ethnic stereotypes are very true. Due to a bleak history culminating in a nasty, prolonged civil war, many Bosnians have a very bitter, and very dark, sense of humor. Bosnian American writer Aleksandar Hemon has built a career out of finding laughter in darkness—his debut collection of stories, The Question of Bruno, is one of the darkest, most brutal books to be published to critical acclaim in the last 10 years. But with last year's novel The Lazarus Project and especially with Love and Obstacles, his newest collection of linked stories, Hemon has been refocusing his Bosnian identity through a lens of American immigrant experience.
Like Nabokov, another immigrant author working in an adopted language, Hemon's fiction has become more and more self-reflexive. The stories in Love are about a young poet named Bogdan who moves to America and gradually becomes a writer of short stories (at least one of which is published, as Hemon's have been, in The New Yorker) and, ultimately, a book called Love and Obstacles. In one story, Bogdan's father calls him to request, "in his Tarzan English," a favor for a member of their family. When Bogdan refuses, the response is a bitter insult: "'You've become American,' he said disconsolately." Much of Love echoes that condemnation. A creation story told to Bogdan early in the book, in the best story in the collection, "Stairway to Heaven," explains the sadness of that situation:
"There's a tribe here... that believes that the first man and woman slid down from the skies on a rope. God let them down on a rope, they untied themselves and the boss pulled the rope up. And that's exactly what happened, my friend. We were dropped down here and we wanna go back up, but there's no rope. So here you are, Blunderpuss, and the rope is gone."
It's a desolate landscape, but Hemon is able to find the grace in it. ("Everything looked more beautiful from the top of the Mountain of Doom," he writes in "Death of the American Commando.") Love is about that kind of weary, aimless wandering, and as with much of Hemon's fiction, Joseph Conrad—that patron saint of pointless, tragic journeys—is referenced multiple times. But there's something new at work here. There's still the sad Eastern European humor ("'Life is death if you don't have a little drink every now and then,' concluded the Serbian wisely, and chugged from the bottle."), but if you're paying attention to Love, you'll find a tiny amount of hope spackled thinly in the cracks.
In "The Bees, Part One," Bogdan decides to try to shape his father's attempts at writing into something resembling a book. Books had always been a wedge between the two men: "Whatever conveyed reality earned my father's unqualified appreciation... nothing insulted him more than literature; the whole concept was a scam." Working on his father's turgid prose—"Father devotes nearly a page to the moment he first recognized a queen bee"—is an effort that ultimately results in heartbreak, but the mere fact that Bogdan commits to the project, tries to collaborate with his father on something that both men can be proud of, feels supremely American. Hemon will always have that sharp Bosnian sense of humor, but he continues to evolve.