More spilled spaghetti

Aleksandar Hemon, author of "The Question of Bruno," talks about his favorite spies and the need for messiness in American fiction.

By Laura Miller
Published April 27, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Aleksandar Hemon attributes his
astonishing mastery of English (he
arrived in America eight years ago with
only a rudimentary knowledge of the
language) to a job he had canvassing for
Greenpeace in Chicago, the city that he
now loves and calls home. "There was
this period of intense speaking,
producing words on the spot without
rehearsing. I was not a person who
enjoyed public discourse. I became a
mature human being here, an older, and
presumably wiser, person in English."

And Hemon has been good to English, as
well, as the recent publication of his
short-story collection, "The Question of
Bruno," conclusively proves. It's a book
full of peculiar and yet startlingly apt
phrases ("the pungent, sneezeful
greenness of green onions," for
example). It's also a book of shifting,
elusive moods, whether Hemon is writing
about a childhood enthusiasm for the
Russian master spy Richard Sorge; the
sentimental, boozy expansiveness of a
Bosnian family reunion; the absurd,
horror of life in Sarajevo during the
war; or the almost psychedelically vivid
perceptions of a recent immigrant who
sees American objects in starker relief
partly because he doesn't know the names
of any of them. Salon reached Hemon by
phone at his home in Chicago, where he
regards the publication of "The
Question of Bruno" with unflappable

You were writing fiction before you
came to the U.S., but since your recent
work is so much about loss and culture
shock, I assume it must have been about
something else. What?

It was some kind of minimalist shit. The
stories were kind of pared down, a
response to what was going on around me
and so kind of nihilistic, too. They
were not very good. A book of my short
stories was supposed to come out [in
Bosnia] in the summer of '92. Stopping
that was the best thing the war ever
did. They were a symptom of
helplessness. There was so much
overwhelming stuff around there was
really no point in writing stories. They
had this inherent meaninglessness that I
couldn't overcome. One of them was about
Kafka's death. It was dreadful. Here I
was in my 20s writing about the meaning
of life and death.

Is that something you think people in
their 20s can't do?

I'm not sure we can ever really do it,
but in the 20s one is inherently
prevented from doing that.

How are your new stories different to

I'm happy with them because something
has been resolved while I was writing
them. I understood something writing
these stories, even if 50 years from now
they just look like babbling.

You have a close, almost obsessive
attention to detail and to capturing the
qualities of objects and places, which
isn't surprising since you're often
trying to hold on to a lost time and a
lost world, particularly when you're
writing about Sarajevo. Yet even when
you seem to be yearning for the past,
you tend to pick out things to describe
that are gross, even disgusting.

Most people who are in a comfortable
situation of having a continuous life,
they imagine their lives in the best
possible way, even if the objects in
that life weren't exactly like that. But
if you look at it closely, if you have
to remember because if you don't things
may disappear, you remember in a kind of
panic and you don't know what may show
up on the surface of your memory. People
who have involuntary memories of things
like child abuse -- I don't have that,
but I'd bet they remember details very
vividly. Smells and touches and
textures. Something that doesn't allow
them to remember it comfortably. There's
a man pissing under my window right now.

That's like the kind of detail I was
talking about.

He's also pushing an ice cream cart.
Serendipity, the mother of knowledge.

When I remember my childhood, I remember
being close to the ground. When we're
kids we deal with those things because
we're close to them. We have to be
trained to recognize disgusting, abject
things. My hands were dirty until I was
15, when I was taught that you don't
touch earthworms. Well, maybe not 15.
That's a little late. I still toy with
them. Those were fascinating things
because you're not supposed to touch
them. There's this purification of life,
including your own body. It becomes this
clean, controllable object. All abject
things about it, and by extension all
abject things in the world, are
presumably not supposed to be there. But
if you want to remember the world, it's
hard to do it without abject things.

There's a scene in your novella,
"Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls," where
someone spills rotten spaghetti on the
kitchen floor and it just stays there.
While I was reading it, I had a nagging
thought about when they were going to
clean up the spaghetti.

That's exactly right, because in a
clean, narrative life, all those messes
are cleaned up. You have explained
things to yourself, things about other
people and about your own life. All the
blotches are gone. I think American
fiction needs more spilled spaghetti. At
some point, fiction gets purified from
abject moments and moments of spillage.
And there's something so false about it,
it becomes unbearable. The projection of
life as either clean and pure, or if
there are ugly little things, they're
completely controllable and containable.
Right now my apartment is a terrible
mess, and I'd like to clean it but I'll
never be able to because life always
spills over.

You say you'd like to clean it, but
you also must like it a bit.

Well, I have to like it. Otherwise, I'm

In your stories about living as an
immigrant in Chicago, feeling almost
invisible and the pain and loneliness of
that experience is really palpable. But
now that you're married and you've had
some literary success, do you ever miss
your old invisibility?

The advantage was you could watch
without being seen. Watching without
being seen is a privileged situation for
a writer. But it's a question of how can
I adjust my identity so I can still
watch without being seen. It's a spy
question. There are spies who
surreptitiously watch other people,
break through doors and crawl in the
night. And there are spies who are in
the sight of everyone but they don't
know exactly who they are. There is
always a spy fantasy that can help me!

What do you do now when you want to
be unseen, go to places where no one
knows you?

No, because at some level, you're always
being watched. There are cameras in
every store or the neighborhood watch. A
large number of people here, I've found,
have a need to roll down their shades at
night because they think that they may
be watched.

Do you do roll them up?

No, I just roll them up so I can see ...
a man pissing under my window. But it's
really how you behave as you know you
are being watched, and anticipating the
watcher's reaction. Some people might
want to hide in some absolutely secure
place, but I don't think that place
exists. And even if you hide, there's
nothing to hide ultimately. You're
sitting in darkness.

Are you still as interested in spies
as you were as a kid?


Is Richard Sorge still your favorite

Yes, I guess you could call him my
favorite spy. Do I have a list of some
of my favorite spies?

Yes. Who are some of them?

Oh, what is his name? Actually he never
got to be a spy because he was such a
klutz that they caught him. What is his
name? ... Miller.

That's my name!

No, no, no. In 1985 he was an FBI agent
in San Francisco and he was consistently
overweight, but somehow he passed all
the physical exams and had an avocado
farm with his wife and had eight kids
and had to feed them. So he would sell
Avon products out of his FBI car. Then
he was seduced by some Russian woman who
suggested he might earn a buck by spying
for Russia. Once he forgot the key in
the door of the FBI office in San
Francisco! She took him to the Soviet
consulate, which was the single most
monitored object in the Western
hemisphere, packed with FBI agents. So
she left him in the car while she went
to talk to the Russians, and while he
was sitting in the car, they saw him.
[Laughs] He got a double life sentence.

He's not exactly what I'd call a
master spy.

No. He was someone who was such a klutz
and he was at the center of the Cold
War, mind you, and was completely wiped
out by it. There are other spies. I like
Sorge because he did it out of
conviction. The Soviets normally
controlled their spies, told them
exactly what to do and how to do it.
That was standard practice of the KGB.
Whereas Sorge had free range. They'd
send him to Shanghai and let him do
whatever he wanted, and his information
was first rate. But he was also an
old-fashioned spy because he was a
completely public person, a journalist,
a bon vivant, drank a lot and was a
womanizer. He would meet everyone and
talk to everyone and people would come
to him for information. His defense from
being discovered when he was being
watched at all times was to be visible
at all times, but visible as someone
else. He had a role he grew into.

My favorite detail about him isn't in
the story [in my book]. When the German
ambassador in Tokyo found out that there
might be a spy at the embassy, he told
Sorge, "There might be a spy here." And
Sorge said, "Yeah, I know." I like that.
It's remarkable how much spying is done
in the light of the day and doesn't have
to be surreptitious. A lot of the
information Sorge got was from the
newspapers and conversations, accessible
to anyone who would pay attention. It
was information anyone could get; it was
just a question of how to organize it,
which is a process remarkably similar to

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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