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Sarajevo and Chicago

In his first collection of short stories, Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon invokes the image of Joseph Conrad on more than one occasion. Like Conrad, Hemon is a refugee, not just from his homeland, but from his language, writing in recently acquired English (Hemon arrived in this country in 1992, with “basic” English skills, and began writing in earnest in 1995). While Conrad used language as a veil, creating deeper and deeper layers of mystery around his elusive subject matter, Hemon takes a vivid approach, documenting the horrors of wartime Sarajevo as if he were a camera. (In “A Coin,” a young Sarajevan woman actually collects horrific video clips from her foreign-cameraman boyfriend.) Sometimes the images are truly memorable -- packs of purebred dogs roaming the streets of Sarajevo -- but sometimes they‘re weighed down by overly schematic devices (footnotes, authorial notes to the reader, photographs).

In the best story, “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls,” we see Chicago through the anxious lens of a visiting Bosnian writer, the cultural dissonance apparent right from his first look at an out-of-tune TV screen in an airport bar: “The square heads of two toupeed men talking were winding upward like smoke, then they would straighten up, and Pronek could see them grinning at their microphones, as if they were delectable lollipops.” Much praised as a successor to Nabokov, Kundera and Kosinski, Hemon isn’t quite there yet; he‘s too in thrall of artifice. Still, he may truly be a writer to reckon with when he figures out that there’s a difference between merely vivid writing and writing that moves: that it‘s no use setting the page on fire if you haven’t first made it come alive.

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