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«War and Exile in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno (2000) José R. Ibáñez Ibáñez Universidad de Almería jibanez Resumen El ...»

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Verbeia Número 0 ISSN 2444-1333

War and Exile in Aleksandar Hemon’s

The Question of Bruno (2000)

José R. Ibáñez Ibáñez

Universidad de Almería



El propósito de este trabajo es triple. En primer lugar, se propone analizar la concepción

del relato corto que tiene Aleksandar Hemon, un emigrado bosnio quien se ha convertido

en una de los voces representativas más destacadas del actual panorama literario americando. En segundo lugar, se adentra a evaluar la crítica al relato corto actual en los Estados Unidos teniendo en cuenta el camino emprendido por muchos escritores noveles quienes ansían el éxito inmediato poniendo para ello en práctica los marcados estándares estructurales y temáticos que imponen las revistas literarias nacionales. Hemon cree que de este modo el relato norteamericano actual, por una parte, desafía su naturaleza solitaria, como bien expuso Frank O’Connor en The Lonely Voice, mientras que, por la otra, se muestra incapaz de responder al tiempo cambiante, “el mundo de los refugiados e inmigrantes y su espectacular disparidad económica”. En base a esta última noción, se ofrecerá un breve análisis de tres de las historias más representativas de Hemen, publicadas en su The Question of Bruno, la obra con la que hizo su debut en el género del cuento.

Palabras clave: relato corto, relato corto norteamericano del siglo XX, “voz solitaria”, literatura de guerra, personajes marginalizados.

Abstract The aim of this paper is threefold. First, it seeks to assess the modes of storytelling seen in the stories by Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian émigré, who has become an outstanding representative of the new voices in the American literary arena. Second, it assesses Hemon’s critique of current storytelling in America in view of the path undertaken by many novice writers, who long for immediate success as they put into practice the thematic and structural standardization imposed by national literary reviews. Hemon believes that, by doing so, current American storytelling, on the one hand, defies its 221 Verbeia Número 0 ISSN 2444-1333 solitary nature –as expounded in Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice– and, on the other, it fails to respond to a changing world, “the world of refugees and immigrants and spectacular economic disparity”. Bearing this notion in mind, three of Hemon’s most representative narrations, published in his debut volume The Question of Bruno, are analyzed.

Keywords: short story, twentieth-century American short story, “lonely voice”, war literature, marginalized characters.

Over forty years have elapsed since the critic Thomas H. Gullason published “The Short Story: An Underrated Art”, a lucid article in which he regretted that the short story was still an understimated genre. Despised by both critics and readers, he considered that they still had an “old-fashioned picture of the short story: a rambling, simple, balladlike narrative, a public, oral art, the property of the storyteller and his community” (1963: 13).

In his analysis, Gullason considered that one of the main reasons why the short story was not highly regarded was mainly due to the lack of critical essays and books on the theory of short fiction. He ventured to name three serious critical studies: H. E. Bate’s The Modern Short Story (1941), Sean O’Faolain’s The Short Story (1951) and Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice (1963), though, quite surpringly, he does not go into any further consideration. What Gullason could never imagine is the tremendous impact that O’Connor’s seminal work would have in the years to come. Today, over five decades after its first edition, The Lonely Voice is still regarded as a major influence on short story criticism,1 in which O’Connor had an initial goal in mind: to say, in the words of Russell Banks, what a short story is and is not (2004: 7).2 This paper aims to assess Aleksandar Hemon’s notion of storytelling by focusing on three of the most representative stories published in his debut collection, The Question of Bruno (2000).However, prior to my analysis of these narrations and, in order to gain a better insight into Hemon’s work, firstly, I intend to draw a comparison between Frank O’Connor’s and Aleksandar Hemon’s conception of the short story, in view of their shared vision of the role of short fiction–both writers agree that no other literary art form lends itself better to the needs of the marginal voices than the short story does; then, I intend to It should be noted that Charles E. May recently played down the importance of O’Connor’s study on the short 1 story in his lecture delivered at the 10th International Conference on the Short Story in English, held in Cork, Ireland, on 19-21 June 2008.

2Russell Banks’s study introduces O’Connor’s 1985 and 2004 editions of The Lonely Voice, published by Melville House Publishings.

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take into consideration Hemon’s critique of the standardization mode exerted by major literary reviews and creative writing workshops and their subliminal imposition on what a good story, structurally and thematically, should be. In this respect, Hemon’s storytelling aims to subvert this normalcy of current American literary arena by producing narrations which illustrate O’Connor’s concept of submerged population.

Studied in depth and quoted extensively by both short story critics and practitioners, The Lonely Voice addresses the solitary nature of this genre, which hinges on lonely characters, or as O’Connor put forward, “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society” (2004: 18). The Irish writer and critic claimed that in the short story we may find “an intense awareness of human loneliness,” not to be found in the novel (19). Though they derive from the same sources, the most striking difference between the novel and the short story is not so much formal as it is ideological (20). Hence the short story has always favored and had a special predilection for marginal individuals, characters left aside by the novel, a form that, according to Russell Banks, “posits a ‘normal’ society and offers us a hero whose actions define that normalcy” (Banks, 2004: 9). Though O’Connor acknowledged that his perspective drew substancially on intuition, he believed that the geographical distribution of the novel and the short story was contingent on a country’s societal structure and, besides, he determined that, for some reason, the short story seemed to have always flourished in fragmented societies, populated by large pockets of submerged population. The short story writer does not construct his narrations around a plot development; instead, as Richard F. Peterson contends, he “by necessity seeks out a point of crisis, a moment of conflict and revelation” (1982: 54). In the case of Hemon, this moment usually comes at war times–as it occurs in ‘A Coin’–or through alienation and displacement, as happens in the Bosnian émigré protagonist of “Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls”, narrations published in Hemon’s debut collection, The Question of Bruno.

At the end of the 1980s, Clare Hanson also wondered why the short story had been neglected in both academic and non-academic critical circles and, though she never alluded to Gullason’s seminal article, she believed that this art form had become ‘popular’ in a pejorative sense. Unlike Gullason, who defended the long literary tradition of the short story, Hanson stated in her introduction to Re-Reading the Short Story that “it took a long while for the novel to establish itself as a ‘serious’ art form: the short story–a recent form– is still struggling” (1989: 1). She also went beyond in her assessment as she acknowledged that “the short story offered itself to losers and loners, exiles, women, blacks–writers who for one reason or another have not been part of the ruling ‘narrative’ or epistemological/experiential framework of society” (3). Thereafter she went on to write 223 Verbeia Número 0 ISSN 2444-1333 that those exiles she was referring to were “not the self-willed émigré, but the writer who longs to return to a home culture which is denied him/her”, and brings attention to the cases of Katherine Mansfield, Nadine Gordimer or Doris Lessing, writers literally and physically exiled from their home countries and internally and emotionally exiled in their adopted country. Hanson concludes by stating that “for such writers, the short story has offered a prime means of expression” (3).

It is common ground that some of the voices of short fiction in America in the last century came from writers who were born abroad and left their homeland in search of a better life.

Many of these authors used their mother tongues as a means of representation of the reality they had left behind, as well as the difficulties they encountered upon arrival in America. These are the cases of Abraham Cahan, who published his short fiction in English and Yiddish, Helena Stas, who wrote her fiction in Polish, Carl Wilhelm Andeer in Swedish or Ole Amundsen Buslett in Norwegian, just to name a few authors.3 The literary works of exiles reflect this reality and still today the short story continues to offer itself as the most genuine literary form to express their life experience in their new country, and the English language as the most conventional vehicle. Along the years, many of these exiles to the U.S. were forced to leave their country for political reasons, or as a result of the war outbreak at home. Such are the cases of Ha Jin, a Chinese award-winning writer who refused to go back to his country after watching televised coverage of the brutal repression at Tiannanmen Square by the Chinese government, or Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian journalist who sought asylum when war erupted at home. Hemon had arrived in the U.S. as a beneficiary of a cultural exchange programme. Once his application was accepted, he worked at a variety of odd jobs while improving his English. When the Yugoslav wars broke out, he decided to remain in the U.S. and learn to speak proper English in no more than five years. Quite surprisingly, within three years, Hemon began to write in English short stories that he eventually sent to literary magazines. This fact did not go unnoticed as critics began to compare him with Joseph Conrad o Vladimir Nabokov, not because Hemon wrote in an adopted language as they did but, as Jenifer Berman remarks, because “Hemon’s pitch-perfect diction and virtuosic command of the English language are shocking only in that you wish others wrote so well, and with such zeal for formal challenge” (Berman, 2000).

From a cursory glance at the narratives included in The Question of Bruno, his first volume of short stories, one perceives Hemon’s innovative formal experimentation and brilliant For further insight of short story writers who published their works in their immigrant tongues, see Werner 3 Sollor’s “Non-English American Short Stories”.

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combination of fiction and reality in pieces such as “The Life and Works of Aleksander Kauders” or “The Sorge Spy Ring”. In view of the thematic content, the stories of this collection could be easily categorized as “war literature”–some of the most remarkable narrations in this collection have the Bosnian Civil War as a backdrop. This is, in part, due to Hemon’s interest in history. Hemon’s belief, that claiming that History should be taken as an exact represention of “truth”, is almost as equally dangerous as contending that the Holocaust is fiction (Berman, 2000). Thus, assuming the dominant discourse of history as being “true”, inevitably leads us to set aside the voices of those who live on the fringes of society. Concerning the relationship between fiction and reality, represented by History, Hemon acknowledges that “the unclear borders between fiction and history are of the utmost political importance, because both history and fiction provide models to organize the practice of human life” (Berman, 2000).

As regards the current panorama of American short fiction, Hemon has been very critical with the attitude of publishers or creative-writing workshops, as they favor those narrations that meet standards of Americanness. In this sense, he has denounced the role of the standardizing machinery–“an army of freshly trained creative-writing infantry” (Bold Type, 2002)–which dictates what good stories should be, that is to say, “about the American life written by Americans for Americans in all their colorful diversity, meeting high American standards of storytelling, published in TheNew Yorker and similar magazines”, producing examples that “work to imagine a community, and not just a literary one, but a national one” (Hemon, 2005: 211). Hemon has admitted in interviews that he cannot stand “the stories about Midwestern boredom…, the stories about junkedup drunks trying to find a little love in a brothel, the stories about divorced academics going through their annual crisis at some godforsaken conference” (Bold Type, 2002); or narrations in which fifty-year-old white Americans go through a divorce or are immersed in their daily routine, or those ones of spiritually hollow Americans who live in malls and amusement parks. In his critical view, these stories do “largely fail to respond to a changing world (including the United States)–the world marked by disappearing borders and the global expansion of capital; the world of refugees and immigrants and spectacular economic disparity” (Hemon, 2005: 211-2). Without being fully aware of the impact of his critique, Hemon’s iconoclastic stance of what American traditional modes of storytelling should be addressing to brings a reminder of how current short fiction has diverged from its original conception.

As can be expected, the stories of The Question of Bruno do not accommodate to such heading of Americanness denounced by his author. It is noteworthy that some narrations 225 Verbeia Número 0 ISSN 2444-1333 in this volume consist of brief disconnected-fragments told by different narrative voices.

These stories challenge, both structurally and thematically, the traditional modes of storytelling in American short fiction. Nonetheless, though denied by Hemon himself, some of his structurally disjointed stories recall the political break-up of Yugoslavia, a multiethnic and multireligious country which disintegrated after the Bosnian Civil War (1992-1995).

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