‘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

‘The Aquarium’ by Aleksandar Hemon

This is a true story and it is devastating. What could be more harrowing than the death of a parent and the dissolution of a family? Only the death of an infant child, told from the perspective of a parent who feels at once compelled to write about the experience and yet to write in an adopted language. Aleksandar Hemon was granted asylum in the United States when war broke out in his native Bosnia in 1992, and he began publishing in English a decade later. In 2010, however, his nine-month-old daughter Isabel was diagnosed with an exceptionally rare type of brain tumour, and after a series of awful interventions she died in hospital before her first birthday. In his retelling of her death, Hemon pins extraordinary hopes on mastering a language he doesn’t understand — medical terminology that carries the false promise of a firm diagnosis with a fixed course of treatment — until the catastrophic moment brings him to a point at which language escapes him and he falls back on just two words of incredible, raw emotion. The story is simultaneously a testament to the inadequacy of language in the face of death and a declaration of faith in the capacities of language to make survival bearable.

From The Book of My Lives, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013; read it at the New Yorker here)