Aleksandar Hemon’s short story, “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” will give us plenty to discuss at this month’s meeting of our Reading Circle. Originally published in 2008, and subsequently included in Hemon’s short story collection entitled Love and Obstacles in 2009, this outstanding piece of fiction could probably be attributed rather easily to its unique author, since his work generally focuses on characters whose predicament is similar to his own: they are Bosnians who either live in the United States (or more specifically, in Chicago), or who have otherwise been personally affected by the dissolution of the former Yugoslav Republics and the brutal war that ensued. Personally, I find the fact that Hemon learned English only in his late twenties (and perfected it!), and shortly thereafter went on to enjoy considerable literary success in his non-native language, to be the mark of an individual with a unique command of the written word. In this respect, we could liken his personal situation and literary talent to those of Lara Vapnyar, the author of last month’s text, only that Hemon had been published in his native language before emigrating to the United States. Some of the readers who commented on his work on the websites recommended in the previous informational post claim to have noted certain metaphors and images as signs of a distinctly foreign voice, using phrases and comparisons that would seem out of place to a reader whose native language is English. This may or may not be true, but I don’t think such stylistic questions are relevant to any discussion of the value of this story.
Although it is only partially related to his command of the English language, Hemon employs a narrative structure in “The Noble Truths” that lends a certain complexity to the story as a whole. While recounted entirely in the past tense, the story is comprised of several different “times” and registers: the nameless narrator’s contact with the writer Richard “Dick” Macalister in Sarajevo several years before the moment of enunciation; the results of his initial internet research into Macalister’s work, including quotes from it; a point in time a few years later in which the narrator is a struggling writer in Chicago and has become a follower of Macalister’s work; and a personal reading in Chicago by Macalister from his most recent novel; and perhaps the most confusing element of Hemon’s story, which is the narrator’s summary of this novel, coincidentally the moment which lends a coherence to the (narrator’s) story as a whole. This coherence, more than a series of anecdotes surrounding an encounter between a successful writer from the United States and an aspiring one originally from Bosnia, it is a more general reflection on the profession of writing, the search for a literary voice that incorporates life experiences, and the nature of admiration.
One does not need to be a particularly astute reader to observe that Americans (both the individual characters of the story and the people in general) are not portrayed in an especially flattering light. But neither are the Bosnians, for that matter. The representation of both countries and their respective peoples is distanced and embittered, but always ambivalent. The culture collector for this month’s meeting will have a field day “collecting” descriptions of Americans and other commentaries. The character of Macalister, for instance, seems to bring together a number of these qualities generally associated with United States citizens. His white tube socks, worn with sandals, are one of the most striking images at the beginning of the story. He also wears a Hawaiian shirt to the reception given in his honor at the residence of the American Ambassador in Sarajevo, an emblem of the so-called bad taste often attributed to a stereotypically American fashion sense. But Macalister is also soft-spoken, a vegetarian, and spiritual. He keeps his promise to call the narrator the morning after the reception, and even confounds him with his politeness. These quirks could also be labeled as typically American, but are by no means negative.
The Bosnian characters of the story are presented in an equally ambivalent light. The well-to-do members of Sarajevo’s high society who attend the reception for the prize-winning writer are portrayed as materialistic social climbers in search of status via association with the United States. A Barbie-like woman all but throws herself at the physically unremarkable Macalister. The next day, the narrator brags to his family that his author friend is a famous author, a comment in sharp contrast with the writer’s humble demeanor. The narrator’s father directly asks Macalister if he is rich, and serves him alcohol when explicitly told that he doesn’t drink. This tremendous lack of tact notwithstanding, Sarajevo is portrayed as a beautiful city with a tragic recent history, and its people as generally simple and well-intentioned folks (think of the last-minute preparations that go into the lunch, or the sincerity underneath the narrator’s father’s “interrogation” of his guest), who are ultimately victims of the war that devastated the Balkans, hence the narrator’s occasionally contradictory impulses towards criticism and nostalgia. He wants to show Macalister (and the reader) the best of what his native city has to offer, even if his manner of doing so comes off as blunt or pushy at times.
Another element of Hemon’s story that I find noteworthy is the implicit contemplation of the effect that violence has on societies, individuals, and by extension, on cultural production – in this case, on writing. For all the differences between the nameless narrator (the writer) and Macalister (the Writer), as the true readers, we can observe many similarities in tone between them, even if they hail from different corners of the globe. First, an attitude towards humanity that could be characterized as existentialist, or even nihilist, is everywhere apparent. Before accepting the invitation to the gala at the Ambassador’s residence, the narrator stumbles upon a list of notable quotes from Macalister’s work, and is struck by one in particular: “One of these days the thick chitin of the world will break open and shit and sorrow will pour out and drown us all. Nothing we say can prevent that”. Such a perspective, especially out of context, leaves little room for worldly hope. Macalister is a veteran of the war in Vietnam, the narrator displaced by civil war in his native Bosnia, and both live in a society in which the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ever present. In fact, the atrocities committed by American soldiers who participated in the occupation of Iraq, as well as the horrific psychosocial consequences of the occupation, provide both the plot and the theme of the novel whose final dialogue ultimately reconciles the narrator with his own admiration of (and identification with) Macalister and brings him one step closer to finding his own voice as a writer. The nihilistic title of Macalister’s novel, “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” is in turn the title of Hemon’s (or the narrator’s) short story.
If you enjoyed this month’s story and the tone in which it is written, there are two more pieces of short fiction by Aleksandar Hemon which can be read for free on the New Yorker website. Personally, I recommend “Love and Obstacles,” the title story of Hemon’s most recent collection. You can access it by clicking on the following link: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/11/28/051128fi_fiction
I encourage everyone to take another look at the story, and I look forward to seeing you and hearing your thoughts at next Wednesday’s meeting. And don’t forget to leave a comment or two beforehand here on the blog!