In this stylistically adventurous, brilliantly funny tour de force-the most highly acclaimed debut since Nathan Englander's-Aleksander Hemon writes of love and war, Sarajevo and America, with a skill and imagination that are breathtaking.
A love affair is experienced in the blink of an eye as the Archduke Ferdinand watches his wife succumb to an assassin's bullet. An exiled writer, working in a sandwich shop in Chicago, adjusts to the absurdities of his life. Love letters from war torn Sarajevo navigate the art of getting from point A to point B without being shot. With a surefooted sense of detail and life-saving humor, Aleksandar Hemon examines the overwhelming events of history and the effect they have on individual lives. These heartrending stories bear the unmistakable mark of an important new international writer.
Much like his protagonist in the novella Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls, the cornerstone of this collection of eight stories, Hemon came to the U.S. as a tourist, but had to stay as a refugee when his native Yugoslavia splintered apart. The expertly wrought stories he has written since movingly set his characters' personal memories side by side with history's accidents, the guilt of exile sharing space with the horrors of war, in both straightforward narratives and border-erasing experiments. The constant themes of war and exile mingle most affectingly in "A Coin," in which a Sarajevan's letters detailing the day-to-day terror of the Yugoslavian conflictDwhat it's like to run the gauntlet of Sniper's Alley or to be unable to bury your dead safelyDreach an uneasy migr in the U.S. who feels eerily isolated from current events and the tides of history. History likewise erupts in "Islands," when a favorite uncle interrupts a family vacation to relate his boyhood experiences in Stalin's labor camps to a narrator not much older than he was then. Elsewhere, history footnotes fiction, as in the experimental "The Sorge Spy Ring," which juxtaposes a wryly compiled case file of an actual Soviet agent with a boy's fantasy of his father's spying for the U.S.S.R. Although Hemon's satiric vision of the U.S. in "Blind Jozef" (a shorter version was published in the New Yorker) is less fresh than that of his Titoist childhood, its portrait of a Bosnian writer marking time in a grungy, postmodern Chicago is wryly uncompromising. Generously endowed with pathos, humor and irony, and written in an off-balance, intoxicating English, this collection announces a talent reminiscent of the young Josef Skvorecky.