Evolution Through Storytelling

I stood up—the pain beginning to set in—and unpacked my mother’s chicken-and-pepper sandwich; it was stale, the pepper mushy and bitter. I turned on the lights, found my notebook, and after biting into the sandwich and staring at the blank page for a long time, wrote a poem that I titled “Love and Obstacles,” the first lines: There are walls between the world and me,/and I have to walk through them.

Literature is a constant and storytelling is necessity in Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles, a collection of interlocking stories about the growth of a nameless Bosnian writer. It begins and ends with stories that include American storytellers—Spinelli the conman and McCalister the Pulitzer winner—and between these are many Bosnians who approach the act of writing in vastly different ways—from poetry, to straight nonfiction, to aggressive notes to roommates, to film. Through it all, the protagonist is evolving, bringing the lessons from each storyteller he meets into the next experience.

The protagonist has in common with Hemon all the skeletal aspects of life—birthplace, vocation, and ultimate life as a not-quite-exiled writer in the US. This is the case in each of his books, and as in the others it takes nothing away from the work. English is Hemon’s second language and he takes no aspect of it for granted; from using words we don’t hear in ways we couldn’t have imagined to his perfect use of the oft-maligned semicolon. He often gets playful: “atwitter,” “asparkle,” and “adrizzle” all make appearances.

“The Conductor” is the collection’s best moment. Placed between stories of the protagonist’s youth in Bosnia and his life in America, it encompasses the chronological trajectory of the collection and gives it its shape. At the beginning, the protagonist is a student of literature in Sarajevo who goes to a café to hang out with the famous poets, including the most famous of them all, Dedo. Eventually, after the war in Sarajevo when they are living in the States, they are both invited to speak on the same panel and end up sleeping in the same bed. It, like the entire book, is a gorgeous, seamless ride from youthful stupidity to wise uncertainty.

What is most refreshing is that through it all, we’re not wrestling with whether or not his Bosnian nationality is important to him, or whether Americans are assholes, or if his father’s hatred of fiction means anything grand. There is no tossing and turning over politics or relevance, it’s just human characters, living and being portrayed in writing that is both palpable and meditative.


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