‘The Conductor’ by Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon was the first writer from Bosnia I came across a few years ago, and he helped me find my way to other excellent writers from the Balkans. Everything he has published is worth reading but I think his short stories are where his quality really shines. They have a style, poise and elegance that are a pure pleasure to read. ‘The Conductor’ is in some ways a characteristic Hemon story in that it contains autobiographical elements (the young Bosnian writer who is stuck in the USA throughout the siege of his home city of Sarajevo), but also fantastical characters and events, and a large space between where you just don’t know where the real and the fictional collide. Along with the narrator, the other main character is Muhamed D., a older poet also known as Dedo:

“My story is boring: I was not in Sarajevo when the war began; I felt helplessness and guilt as I watched the destruction of my hometown on tv; I lived in America. Dedo, of course, stayed for the siege – if you are the greatest living Bosnian poet, if you wrote a poem called “Sarajevo”, then it is your duty to stay.”

The narrator dislikes Dedo from the time they first meet in Sarajevo before the war. He resents the obvious disdain the older man has for him. He resents his poetry and his fame, and the way he uses them to attract young women. Then, when he pretends that Dedo’s poetry is his own in order to seduce an American woman at an MLA conference, he resents him even more. His feelings about the old man become inseparable from his own self-loathing. Eventually they meet again when Dedo moves to the USA and the younger man becomes reconciled to him during a night of horribly comic mishaps as they get drunk together and suffer a series of degradations and humiliations. In the end he learns to love the old man and to embrace him in his decrepitude, and perhaps he learns to accept the lost and guilty part of himself as well.

First published in The New Yorker, Feb 28, 2005, and available to read here. Collected in Love and Obstacles, Picador, 2009. Also included in The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, Penguin, 2021

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