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Aleksandar Hemon:
The Question of Bruno
Aleksandar Hemon
  The Question of Bruno  
Aleksandar Hemon    
















 

It is tempting to try to understand Aleksandar Hemon's writing simply by trying to understand his biography. He came to the United States--to Chicago--in 1992. He had a basic command of English, and intended to stay for a matter of months. Then Sarajevo came under siege, and he was unable to return home. Stranded here in America, he found himself unable to write in Bosnian (Serbo-Croatian) and so gave himself five years to master the English language. He wrote his first story in English in 1995.

Hemon's life makes a good story. It is tempting to understand his writing as the product of a linguistic prodigy. It is also tempting to understand his writing purely in light of the political situation in the former Yugoslavia. But really, the only way to understand Hemon's writing is as you would understand any other: What does it do to you? What does his prose do to the way you read? What does his perspective do to the way you see and live in the world? When you read The Question of Bruno this way, yes, it is wonderful that Hemon learned English in three years and that he writes like this, and yes, it is amazing what the world did to his life and the world he lived in, and that he is able to communicate like this, but mostly it is just thrilling that a book can be this original and that literature can be this affecting, this exhilarating.

Set in Chicago and Sarajevo, The Question of Bruno is essentially a book about the trauma of war, about how an exile makes a new life in a new land. Essentially a book about espionage, assassination, history, beekeeping; essentially a book about the art of dodging sniper fire in a modern city under siege and about making sandwiches in a modern city in the middle of the USA. It is a work of impressive range and of deep humor, painfully funny and heartbreakingly serious.

In this issue of Bold Type, on the eve of the publication of The Question of Bruno, Hemon discusses literature and writing--their qualities, their purpose, their craft--with another young writer, one who has recently been through the thrills and joys, dangers and transformations of publishing his own first book.

Nathan Englander probably needs little introduction. His debut collection of stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges stormed the world's literary gates last year, hailed by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times as "accomplished...daring, funny, and exuberant." It has just been published in paperback.

Englander is another writer whom it is tempting to reduce simply to his personal identity. He is Jewish, lives in Israel, and most of his characters are Jews, often Orthodox. And indeed, the first wave of attention for his book celebrated it as an exposé of Orthodox Jewish life. It is, of course, absurd to deny the importance of Judaism to Englander's writing, at least as absurd as it would be deny the relevance of Hemon's identity to his work. Englander is the heir apparent to great Jewish writers like Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, but as Ann Beattie points out, he is also an heir apparent to Denis Johnson, Richard Ford, and Thom Jones. What makes his work so special is his brilliance and daring as a storyteller, his willingness to unleash his imagination and to capture it so elegantly on the page.

This Bold Type feature includes the conversation between Hemon and Englander -- the two had read and admired each other's work, but did not know each other and had never met when the exchange began -- along with an excerpt from "Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls," the novella in The Question of Bruno; an audio reading of another story from the book; as well as links to a separate Bold Type feature on Nathan Englander, which includes excerpts, an interview, and audio readings.


RELATED LINKS:
http://www.questionofbruno.com
http://www.nanatalese.com

 
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  Photo of Aleksandar Hemon copyright © SA Schloff

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