VJ Books Blog

(The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 22, Matthew Kaminski)

Last year, a teenager in a trench coat shot to death five people in a crowded Salt Lake City shopping mall, before being gunned down himself by police. The story caught the writer Aleksandar Hemon‘s eye not for its horrible post-Columbine banality, but because of a detail about the shooter — he was a Bosnian Muslim refugee from Srebrenica, Europe’s bloodiest killing field since World War II. Without presuming to know the boy’s demons, Mr. Hemon, who fled Bosnia himself, notes that traumas of war and exile lurk deep inside.

In his recent novel, “The Lazarus Project,” a protagonist is a seemingly adjusted Bosnian-born writer in Chicago named Brik. But he is angry, says Mr. Hemon, like so many Bosnians who settle “for the comfortable mediocrity of their lives here” yet “have this sense of indelible loss.” Mr. Hemon is angry too. “My friends are scattered around the world, my family is scattered around the world,” he says. “Loss is not something you can dismiss and forget about.”

His hometown of Sarajevo bears the scars of war and a subsequent uneasy peace. “It’s sad,” he says. “Nelson Algren said loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose, and loving Sarajevo is like loving a woman with a broken spine.” On his last trip, a friend tried to organize the city’s first “queer festival.” It was canceled after threats from Islamic extremists, who are an unfortunate byproduct of the 1992-95 conflict in that once staunchly secular Muslim nation.

The strains come to the surface in other ways. “I was in a coffee shop in Sarajevo, a summer day, beautiful, festival time,” he recalls. “Then we noticed some boys. There were several kneeling on the floor, four of them kneeling with their hands above their heads and the fifth boy was shooting them in the head. It was horrifying. They were all born after the war, or just at the end of the war. But that’s their life. . . . This was not playing the good guys and the bad guys. It was playing genocide.

“The war in Bosnia made me angry,” he continues. “Injustice makes me angry. You read about the queer festival and you get angry and my fantasy is, I want to beat someone into the turf. I don’t do it. But my fantasy is, I want to beat someone.” Your Balkan side, I ask? “It could be, could be. I’m trying to shut that side. I wonder how much of that I inherited culturally, something about being a boy or a man, a patriarchal context where agency is often just violence. I had to learn to be nice. I mean I was nice, relatively speaking, but I wasn’t” — he pauses — “I think in a way I seemed to people here to be thuggish and dismissive.”

Mr. Hemon says he knows he shouldn’t complain. Raised in a peaceful Bosnia, he arrived in Chicago with rudimentary English and little money in 1992, before war broke out back home. Then came the clich├ęd immigrant trajectory, as ascribed to Brik in “Lazarus”: “Displacement, travails, redemption, success.” His two novels and short stories brought comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov and another ESL master, Joseph Conrad. “The Lazarus Project,” a parallel tale about the early 20th century anarchist scare in the U.S. and Brik’s struggles to write about it, was a National Book Award Finalist last month. He won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Mr. Hemon is often put in good company with W.G. Sebald, Joseph Roth and Bruno Schultz as well as his generational “immigrant-lit” cohorts — Gary Shteyngart and this year’s Pulitzer winner, Junot Diaz. He acknowledges literary debts to the late Montenegrin-Jewish writer Danilo Kis and his favorite of favorites, Anton Chekhov. And Mr. Hemon recently married and became a father. “I’m happy, and I’m maintaining that happiness,” he says. “It’s a great achievement for a Bosnian.” Fashionable glasses perched atop his large, shaved head, he smiles and I laugh.

Though he’s funny, in person as well as on the page, his subject matter isn’t light: war, the perpetual homelessness of the emigrant, delusional nationalism, injustice. His tales are set in the Bosnia of his youth, his new home in Chicago, as well as the Ukraine of family roots and the Africa and Asia of his imagination, and are told in innovative narratives unspoiled by formal training. (“First time I walked into a [creative writing] workshop I was teaching them,” he says.) The perspective, style and ever-present humor are somehow familiar yet wholly unique. His prose often startles with its originality: “a sphincter mouth”; body odor the blend of “cinnamon and sauerkraut brine”; “yolky sun.” A room after sex “reeks . . . of skin friction and dust.”

Here’s his description of Germans on a Yugoslav beach from the opening story, “Islands,” in his 2000 debut collection “The Question of Bruno”: “The air was sweltering, saturated with sea-ozone, exhaustion and the smell of coconut sun lotion coming from the German tourists, already red and shellacked. . . . I would look at their gnarled knees, the spreading sweat stains on their shirts and sagging wrinkles of fat on their thighs.” A delectable Hemonian image, and a wink at Nabokov, whose own Nazi tour guide in “Cloud, Castle, Lake,” a 1937 story, “was burned the color of a cockscomb, had huge brick-red knees with golden hairs, and his nose looked lacquered.”

When people marvel at his linguistic skill in a second language, Mr. Hemon says the choice was made for him after his arrival in Chicago. He wasn’t going back to Bosnia, wanted to write fiction while pursuing a Ph.D. in English, and “I couldn’t, for some reason, write in Bosnian. I think it’s because the war cut me off — literally, but also it was outside of my experience. I was not shot at or killed, and for some reason I thought I had no right to use that language. I had not earned it by being there.”

His stories draw deeply on his own life without coming across as autobiography. You never really know what’s true. As we ate dinner in Paris last year, his wife gently mocked him for telling tall tales. “What I tell you in person, it is usually the truth,” he says the other day over lunch in Chicago. “I have trouble lying. In fiction I say what I want.” Mr. Hemon has an especially intimate relationship with his characters. “It’s important to me to like my characters. What I like about Chekhov — one of the many things — is he loves his people. If God existed, that’s the way he would love his people. They might be wrong and stupid and evil but never just bad.”

He’s not crazy about the “immigrant-lit” tag, and says that he, Mr. Diaz and Mr. Shteyngart write primarily as Americans. “If it needs a label, a more precise one would be bicultural,” he says. “What’s interesting to me, at least, is the ways of negotiating this bicultural situation. In the melting pot, you have to choose — assimilation or not. And we don’t have to, and it’s a privilege, and it’s a tribute to this country.”

What’s also remarkable about the immigrant experience, at least his own in Chicago, is “you don’t have to have grown up in this neighborhood to claim it as your own. My neighbors who were here before me don’t say, ‘You have to thank us for letting you in.’ And I do like that.” The contrast with Europe, particularly his Balkans, is obvious. “Your identity is not legitimized by blood and national identity. It’s more complicated than that. It’s legitimized by participation in society. I like that because I want to participate. I do not want to be assimilated. I want to be an American as a matter of choice and not unconditionally.”

In Chicago, Mr. Hemon has recreated the close neighborhood ties of his childhood in Sarajevo. He goes to the Italian barber around the corner from his home in Edgewater. He knows the streets by heart and is exacting in his descriptions of the Windy City in his prose. “I was primarily loyal to Sarajevo. I was loyal to Bosnia, as a matter of principle.” War destroyed the place, and his own place in it. Now, “my primary loyalty is to Chicago, because it doesn’t need an idea to exist. It does exist.”

Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

Write to Matthew Kaminski at matthew.kaminski@wsj.com