What the Bosnian-American fictionist Aleksandar Hemon loves about being compared to Vladimir Nabokov is not the part about mastering English as a new language — praise Hemon doesn’t feel he’s earned quite yet. What pleases Hemon is a deeper Slavic kinship that readers have noted — the same kinship that Nabokov felt with Chekhov and “the subtle humor” of “this Chekhovian dove-gray world,” as Nabokov put it. Hemon writes “sad books for humorous people,” he says, and perhaps “humorous books for sad people” as well.
Our conversation is with the novelist of The Lazarus Project, the story-teller of Love and Obstacles. Hemon is a favorite of The New Yorker magazine for his very typically bi-focal new-century identity. He is about equally rooted in Sarajevo and Chicago by now – about equally drawn, for example, to gaudy gangster histories in either place. The Lazarus Project made a surreal link between a historic murder in Chicago in 1908 and the carnage in Sarajevo at the end of the 20th Century. He writes a very stylish immigrant English for one part of his audience, but the interesting thing in the Internet age is that Aleksandar Hemon also writes a political column online in Bosnian, not just for Sarajevo but for Bosnians in the US who wouldn’t – maybe couldn’t – read him in English. Like the Bosnian man now living in St. Louis who watches pictures of the snow falling in Sarajevo, on the Web. He’s not writing about exile, Hemon says, because he can and does go back to Bosnia. Rather he’s writing the stories and moral discoveries that come with displacement. I asked him to surface his theory about the continuities of violence in the world.
AH: I don’t believe in human atavism, that we’re savages waiting to be activated. I think what turns people into killers on a vast scale is a kind of misguided historical project. These things are well organized. The Nazis, obviously, were not savages. Genocide is a technology, it is a very complicated operation, and they needed a vast, well trained force to do that. Similarly, in the Balkans. A lot of people have represented the conflict in the Balkans as, you know, tribes at each other’s throats, which was a lie in so many ways. But it also misses the point of genocide, the technology of genocide. To kill seven thousand men in Srebenica, you need a large number of buses to transport people from Point A to Point B, so they can be shot. Someone has to organize those busses. There is an army hierarchy and so on. So, for the worst in us to be brought out, there has to be a historical project. In that vein, not quite a genocidal project obviously, the Bush administration, for example, brought out the worst in Americans. They had a misguided horrible project which somehow we’re still at. We’re still doing it, in many ways. And this brought out the worst things in America, and I hated that experience. Which is also to say that opposing such projects becomes a necessary ethical position for each citizen, including writers.
CL: There is a moment in The Lazarus Project that many have noted, where Brik is in a fight with his wife. She is American and she’s kind of defending the innocence of the kids at Abu Ghraib. And the Brik character, who has a lot in common with you, tells her: “I hate the normal people, in the land of the fucking free and the home of the asshole brave… I told her that to be American you have to know nothing, and understand even less. And that I didn’t want to be American…” What has happened to that anger in you, what has happened to that in us?
AH: Well, I have had my anger. It never quite reached that point. Brik is very, very angry with the whole notion of being American. So I could write him, because during the Bush years I had a hard time being American. I was more of an American in ’99, when I wasn’t even a citizen, than I was during the Bush years. Because it seemed to me that if you were an American, you had to sign up for these projects, and I didn’t want to sign up.
CL In The Lazarus Project, Chicago in 1908 is the site of a kind of nativist hysteria. 100 years later, precisely, it became the seat of the new almost transnational American politics. What has happened to us, what has happened to Chicago?
AH: Well, Chicago, like America, was never one thing. It is not a monolithic thing, absolute and primitive… You know, as long as there has been a history of racism in this country there has been a history of opposition to racism. As long as there was an injustice, there were people fighting that injustice. The question is who has a higher hand. That is what I love about America: that vitality. And it can never be reduced to one thing, and the Bush regime tried to reduce it to one thing, we can stand united and question nothing. But it is too big, it is too complicated, it is too democratic. And what happened in Chicago and the United States is this: people like myself, who were playing defense, moved over and started attacking the opponents goal to score. And we scored.
Aleksandar Hemon in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, May 15, 2009.