Thursday, December 30, 2010

Love and Obstacles

What I find most interesting in Love and Obstacles is the way Aleksandar Hemon keeps coming back around to worry over the problems of what he calls “antibiographical writing” in his New Yorker interview. As he describes it, antibiographical writing means writing about things that didn’t happen to you but did happen in contexts you experienced, taking a few details and spinning out new ones to create a story. At the same time, the stories in Love and Obstacles, and perhaps most stories written with this method, are so likely to invite biographical readings that a rejection of excessive realism has to become a theme—almost to the extent that the reader (or at least this one) then wonders whether Hemon protests too much in a desperate bid to declare himself a real creator and not just a mimic of reality. So, as someone likewise averse to (auto)biographical fiction, I am a little puzzled by the solution Hemon tries to enact here.

Another frustrating thing about the book—although this may be its most redeeming attribute—is that Hemon never quite lets us sympathize with any of the stories’ characters. This includes the narrator(s) at every age—he (they) comes across as naïve as a youth (not especially surprising) and increasingly obnoxious and obtuse as an adult. Nonetheless, the supporting characters aren’t any better. In the later stories, the narrator first meets with an film student who wants to interview him for a documentary, then, in the final story, with a fellow writer in the narrator’s home city of Sarajevo. Both are candidates to serve as foils to reveal the narrator’s flawed ways of looking at or behaving in the world. Indeed, the American writer Macalister’s writing method, as it is revealed by the end, seems much like Hemon’s. Nonetheless, both are perfectly abhorrent in their own ways: the film student is as stubbornly bent on putting her interpretation on events as the narrator; Macalister is the worst kind of cultural tourist.

What comes through in this last story, and numerous others, is Hemon’s distaste for fellow immigrants desperate to win the appreciation of Americans. The collection is bookended by a story where the narrator as a youth encounters an American in Africa (his father is diplomat) and the final story about the narrator’s encounter with Macalister. In both cases the satire critiques the narrator’s slavish desire to be loved by the American. When Macalister finally includes a minor, disguised reference to the narrator’s family in his fiction, it indicates not so much the validation and recognition the narrator desired but rather that Macalister has simply consumed the experience and moved on: the narrator and his family really mean very little to him. Thus it is also strange that Macalister’s narrative technique should resemble so much Hemon’s own; the story seems to offer a self-repudiation of the writer as a sort of colonialist, taking his resources from everywhere without acknowledgment. In the initial story, set indeed in a colonial situation, the narrator carries around a copy of Heart of Darkness, and Hemon seems to be working out the problems of inheriting the representation of a fictional Other that supplants real others. From these stories, he comes across as a writer not fully convinced of his chosen aesthetic. That may not be a bad thing.

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