Bosnian writer prefers Chicago, thanks

The New Yorker's recent discovery sheds few tears for his homeland, which Wim Wenders collaborator Peter Handke does.

Published April 16, 1999 10:44AM (EDT)

The New Yorker missed a good opportunity in its contributors notes page this week. The fiction writer's bio is intriguing, if a bit flat: "Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and currently lives in Chicago. He is working on a collection of short stories." On further investigation, Salon Books learned that the life of the 36-year-old author is as engaging as his short story, "Blind Josef Pronek."

Even though he arrived in the United States seven years ago with only a few English classes under his belt, Hemos already writes in English with great success. The Bosnia-set "Islands," another of his stories, appeared in Ploughshares last year and was chosen for Houghton Mifflin's upcoming "Best American Short Stories," and his story collection, "The Question of Bruno," is being shopped around by his agent, Nicole Aragi of Watkins Loomis. Like his literary hero, Vladimir Nabokov, Hemon writes fiction in his second language, English. "A Russian immigrant was the best American writer of the 20th century," Hemon proclaims, adding "but he had an English nanny."

Hemon decided to visit a friend in the United States early in 1992 with the intention of returning to Sarajevo a few months later. As it turned out, Hemon couldn't go home because the Serbian army had surrounded his hometown on the very day he'd planned to arrive. The half-Serbian, half-Ukrainian writer decided to settle in Chicago and learned English at a rapid pace.

"I read 'Lolita' in English and underlined the words I didn't know," he said. "I also canvassed for Greenpeace for two and half years. I estimate I met 5,000 people. I met Chicago's middle class. I met its lower-middle class, its middle-middle class and its upper-middle class. I talked to people on their lawns and on their porches."

Though the recent imigri sounds like he could have run for mayor, like Josef, the hero of his New Yorker short story, he worked at a bakery. Yet unlike Hemos, who quit his job at the bakery, Josef Pronek irks a customer and his boss Dawn when he puts iceberg lettuce on a customer's sandwich instead of romaine:

Pronek whimpered, "Romaine, iceberg, all same."

"I'm sorry," Dawn said, "But we have to let you go."

"I go," Pronek said. "No problem. I go."

The influence of Raymond Carver here is unmistakable. And Hemon, who grew up -- not surprisingly -- as a middle-class kid, reading Carver and J.D. Salinger in Serbo-Croatian, is writing a dissertation at Chicago's Loyola College on the evolution of the American short story. Now married to a Chicagoan, Hemon has no plans to return home. Like many Sarajevan intellectuals, he has no ethnic allegiances and laments only the destruction of his hometown. "The violence there was proportionate to the strength of the tissue that once binded the city," he said. "I will stay in Chicago. The libraries are much better here."

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Agence France Presse reports that Austrian dramatist and author Peter Handke was awarded "knighthood" by the Serbian government in Belgrade earlier this month. The co-writer of the Wim Wenders film "Wings of Desire" found a sympathetic audience with his very controversial pro-Serbian 1997 book, "A Journey to the Rivers." readers also enjoyed the book, handing the narrative four and a half stars. Customers who bought this book also bought "Songs of the Serbian People: From the Collections of Vuk Karadic" and "Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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