Exile on main street
by Tim Adams
With only two books Aleksandar Hemon has established himself as that rare thing, an essential writer. He grew up in Sarajevo and now lives in Chicago. Having rejected his native Bosnian as the language for his fiction as war broke out, he taught himself English by reading Nabokov. The Question of Bruno, an extraordinary collection of stories, saw him begin to suggest his as the authentic voice of the refugee, rolling his adoptive language around on his tongue, flooded with the stories of his past, never quite at home.
His first novel, Nowhere Man (Picador pp242, £15.99), now reveals that voice in something like maturity. It tells the broken anecdotal history of one Jozef Pronek, a shape-shifting alter ego, who grows up in Sarajevo wanting only to get laid and sing Beatles songs, and who finds himself, like the author, suddenly in a life he had never imagined: sitting in a language class in a foreign land, destroyed by news from home.
Hemon, 38, remembers the comparable period of his own life all too exactly. Having been on an exchange programme he was stranded in America by the war, and worked for subsistence money while he tried to locate who he was. For three years he lived between languages. 'I had the sense that when I was speaking English,' he says now, 'I was lying all the time because the difference between what I wanted to say and what I said was so acute. There is a moment in Cronenburg's Naked Lunch, the movie, which I saw around that time, where you can see that what they are saying is not what is coming out of their mouths, the two things are out of sync, and I recognised that feeling very clearly.'
Hemon knew he had to get to the point where he could express himself on paper. 'It was either this career or nothing,' he says. 'I knew that writing was the only thing that could get me out of where I was, both psychologically and emotionally, and also financially.' He thinks for a moment, about how he felt then. 'This is how bad it was,' he says, smiling a little. 'There were nights when I used to have long imaginary conversations with Richard Sorge, the Russian spy, the master of changed identities. I used to believe he was watching over me, used to ask him to help me get myself together somehow.'
The struggle to find that self and that language is now expressed in every sentence that Hemon constructs. He writes with a playful rawness, searching for the word that conjures not only his precise observation but also his complicated relationship with the means of describing it. 'I always want the writing to be palpable and present,' he says. 'Partly to convey that sense of estrangement, but more in the sense that I think that words should never feel transparent.' The result of this, the sense that he is constantly inventing Jozef Pronek's world and the way of expressing it, is by turns, both self-consciously funny and profoundly poignant.
He describes the book as in many ways a before-and-after novel. The before is the Sarajevo of his teenage years, a brief sunlit era for the city, when the constrictions of communism were loosening and brutal nationalism had not yet taken hold. 'There was great energy among people of my generation then,' he says, 'working for papers, making their own music, making films. No one knew what was going to happen. There were great hopes and also the first fears that everything might go to hell - which it did.'
The 'after' of the book is brought about by the dislocation of the war, although the conflict itself is hardly mentioned. 'One of the things that was lost was that sense you are connected with everyone around you,' Hemon says. 'In Sarajevo it was always one degree of separation. That is what literally and physically has been destroyed.'
The currency of that society was always storytelling. 'I was reading Nabokov on Chekhov, recently,' he says, 'and he said that Chekhov wrote sad stories for humorous people. That describes me to myself, but also almost everyone I grew up with.
'Everybody told stories about everyone else. And because you knew this whole cast of characters you felt at home with the comedy and the sadness of their lives.'
One of the things that struck him about arriving in America was that people did not tell stories, they offered opinions, or described their own lives. He sees this lack of engagement in much contemporary fiction, too. 'I want a novel to give me a part of the world in all its exchanges. I have little patience with this pseudo-psychological voice, just one man's view of the world.'
This opposition - between empathy and insularity - is, for him, a political one. Having lived the life of a refugee, Hemon is in a position to articulate, with great humour and humanity, one of the key conflicts of our times, the tension between a static population and a mobile one.
A longer version of this article appeared in The Observer (London), 15 June 2003