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Memphis Flyer The Eyes Have It

A witness for the prosecution, from war-torn Bosnia to the streets of Chicago.

By Leonard Gill

JUNE 19, 2000: 

The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) 230 pp.; $22.95

In 1992, Aleksandar Hemon was 28 years old, a writer on the rise in what was Yugoslavia, and guest of the U.S. on a goodwill tour for up-and-coming foreign authors. On May 1st of that year, he was on the last leg of the trip and due to fly home. On that same date began what would become the four-year siege of Sarajevo.

In a series of phone calls lasting the summer, Hemon's father, with family roots in Ukraine, ordered him to stay put. His mother, a Bosnian Serb, reassured him with news that conditions were improving, that one day's shootings had not been as bad as the day before. Hemon, in Chicago, did as told and stayed. Hemon's parents, in Sarajevo, did as luck would have it and a year later escaped to Canada.

But Hemon's literary mentor, a professor of English and nationally recognized Shakespeare scholar, remained -- and served: as apologist for Radovan Karadzic; as spokesman denying reports of Serb death camps; and as mastermind behind the bombing of Sarajevo's treasured, leading library.

Three years into exile, in 1995, after working a string of miserably low-paying jobs, after working his English from pidgin to proficient, Hemon had his first story in his adopted language published.

Five years into exile, in 1997, Hemon's former mentor was dead: two bullets to the brain, the unlikely but official story: suicide.

It is with this thread-bare biographical background in mind that one must approach the superlative collection -- eight stories in all -- that is The Question of Bruno.

And who is this "Bruno"? The ghost of a husband, whereabouts sensed but unseen? A husband alive in the memory of a surviving wife, herself a ghost of a former self but bearing the visible mark of Germany's own death camps? Hemon doesn't push the question in the book's longest story, the frankly autobiographical "Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls," just as he doesn't push for acceptance of the unacceptable within the darker, recent chapters of European history. His job, as he sees it (and he sees unsparingly), is to record, just as an unflinching camera records and from more angles than one.

So, in the book's straightforward opener, "Islands," an uncle matter-of-factly and in horrific detail recounts, for the benefit of his vacationing 9-year-old nephew, life among the teenage inmates of a Stalinist prison camp. So, in "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders," a beekeeper, pornographer, and madman consorts with Tito, Goebbels, Hitler, Eva Braun, Rosa Luxemburg, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassin, and in the midst of a catalog of real or imagined crimes, declares outright, "I am not a human being." So, in "The Sorge Spy Ring," flashbacks by a son who suspects his father of espionage run parallel to a set of historical footnotes on, and photographs of, real-life Soviet agent Richard Sorge. So, in "A Coin," an ex-patriot in his Chicago apartment battles cockroaches as the lover he left behind in Bosnia risks snipers' bullets on a stretch of war-torn Sarajevo, a city where "you see everything clearly, but you can't comprehend anything."

Seeing and comprehending: two sides perhaps of the same coin. But when events, even in un-war-torn Chicago, defy understanding, exactness of detail, witnessing, watching, even as one is aware of being watched, may be the more honorable goal.

The Question of Bruno is hard to enter into, harder to describe, and hardest to free oneself from. But it's a book to teach a thing or two to a generation of American fiction writers seemingly at a loss as to what matters in literature. Never mind the author's occasional awkwardnesses, as in: "With the adaggio of oars ... we glissaded toward the lake island." Never mind his less than believable handling of American speech patterns. These drawbacks are too few and far between. The book's virtues -- its multiple approaches to narrative, which range from the surreal to the all-too-bloody real, its stitching together of difficult politics and equally difficult lives, its sheer seriousness of purpose -- are too numerous for those of us living safely Stateside to overlook. Hemon's one-time mentor cannot be easy in his grave.


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