LOVE AND OBSTACLES by Aleksandar Hemon

Book Quote:

“Michael wants to be an actor, you see. He is nothing if not vanity and vexation,” the priest said. “But he has only managed to be a fluffer in the odd adult movie. And to tell you the truth, I cannot see a future in fluffing for him.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (MAY 6, 2010)

“It was a perfect African night, straight out of Conrad:” That’s not even the complete first line from the very first story in the collection Love and Obstacles, but it was right here that author Aleksandar Hemon grabbed my attention with his direction to memories of The Heart of Darkness–Conrad’s gaze into the hellish consequences of colonialism.

I first came across Hemon last year when I read his excellent novel The Lazarus Project, so I was more than a little curious to read this short story collection. The first story is called “Stairway to Heaven”–a reference to Led Zeppelin as it turns out, but there’s also a twisted irony, a dark bitter humour to the title. This is a tale of a bored sixteen year old who lives in Zaire with his family. Left to his own devices, he falls into the company of Spinelli, a man who lives in the upstairs apartment. Spinelli is the quintessential ex-pat, unpleasant American–the type who serves some sort of nebulous purpose out in the nether borders of empire. Loaded with bizarre stories of colourful exploits and questionable adventures, Spinelli could have stepped from the ambiguous morality of a Graham Greene novel.

The boy narrates the story of his relationship with Spinelli, and their pseudo-friendship is a welcome release from the boredom of confinement at home alleviated only by the occasional swanky do at the ambassador’s residence. The narrator nicknamed “Blunderpuss” by Spinelli at first thinks that his new companion’s stories are grossly exaggerated:

“He had grown up in a rough Chicago neighborhood and beat it as soon as he could; he had lived in Africa forever; he worked for the U.S. government, and could not tell me what his job was. For if he did, he would have to kill me….And so I thought that he was a true American, a liar and a braggart, and that hanging out with him was far more stimulating than the shackles of family life or the excellent diplomats in Gombe.”

Of course, those who live in exile are free to conjure up whatever past they wish, but then as the narrator and Spinelli spend time together, it seems possible that some of Spinelli’s stories are true. Spinelli is fascinated by his observation that the Africans “had no abstract concept of evil,” and he seems determined to demonstrate the validity of this theory for his own amusement.

There are eight stories in this collection, and “Stairway to Heaven” along with “The Conductor “are my favourites. “The Conductor” is a story of two poets (one successful and one not) who meet in Sarajevo and then again later in America. In the stories, Hemon, who was born in Sarajevo but now lives in America, plays with the idea of identity and exile. Bogdan, the father in “Stairway to Heaven” may or may not appear elsewhere in the collection, for example. Is this another Bogdan? A relative of the first or is Hemon just fond of the name and therefore uses it again?

It shouldn’t be a surprise that some critics are hailing Hemon as the next Nabokov, and that sort of lauded but loaded comment frankly makes me cringe. While the biographical commonalities between Nabokov and Hemon are so glaringly obvious that I’m not going to bother writing about them, it is unfortunate to dump that sort of label on Hemon. Why? Because to walk in Nabokov’s shadow is an enormous responsibility. And then again, why do we have to have another Nabokov? Wasn’t one enough? Why can’t we just have a Hemon?

Hemon’s dry sense of humour reminds me of Nabokov, and then again both authors play with the ideas of identity and exile. Both authors take autobiographical details and then use them in their fiction. But whereas Nabokov’s novels are delivered with a cold, almost clinical precision, Hemon’s stories are teeming with the sort of gritty, low-rent details that are absent in Nabokov. So no, I’m not going to hail Hemon as the next Nabokov, but I think it’s a safe bet to say that if you like Nabokov, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Hemon.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 27 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Trade (May 4, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Aleksandar Hemon
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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May 6, 2010 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Posted in: Short Stories, World Lit