on 1 May 2001
The Question of Bruno is a collection of stories united, if by anything, the reader's awareness of the author's personal presence within the stories. Ranging from the mythological origins of the Hemon family to a forensicly candid description of dodging sniper bullets in Sarajevo, to living with a rotting corpse in the bathroom, the collection always surprises, offering diversity and often a successful literary experiment. To Hemon's credit, in distinction from experimental prose which is often tedious, he rarely (if at all) leaves the reader behind; indeed he never seems to offer experiment for its own sake, and yields prose which serves to communicate rather than confuse. Perhaps one of the more subtle and admirable qualities of the collection is the editing which is able to blend such diverse stories in a meaningful manner.
"The Question of Bruno" appeared in 2000, just 8 years after the author was forced to remain in the USA, which he was visiting, when civil war broke out in his native Bosnia.
During the intervening years he learned English `sufficiently well', an understatement if ever there was, to write this book which contains a novella, "Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls", and 7 short stories, "Islands", "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders", "The Sorge Spy Ring", "The Accordion", "Exchange of Pleasant Words", "A Coin" and "Imitation of Life", both formats that require each word to be placed with care and considerable forethought. Whilst the pieces are able to stand alone, they are connected by their characters and remember a childhood in Tito's Yugoslavia and the cultural dilution that may accompany immigration. The book is dedicated "For Sarajevo, For my wife".
Islands is told in short vignettes, apparently representing "slands" of narratives. Perhaps it would be better to start with one of the other short stories, such as "Coin" and to come back to this one.
"The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders" is a multiple biography of the same character in brief one-sentence paragraphs, complete with end notes. I found this the most difficult read of the book. The reader is left pondering whether a character like Alphonse ever existed since he crops up time after time alongside historical persons, Goebbels, Stalin and Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo in 1914 and so set in train World War I.
In "The Accordion", the same Archduke sees a man with an accordion moments before he is killed. Hemon links this to his own family, since his great-grandfather bought an accordion in Sarajevo that day, and to his own life far away from his homeland.
In ''Exchange of Pleasant Words'', we have a not-too-serious history of the Hemon family, which arrived in Bosnia from the Ukraine. The original Hemon was claimed to be a French soldier on Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. A Ukrainian peasant girl found him frozen in the woods, rescued him and they were married. In the 1960s a French visitor mentioned that there were Hemons in Brittany: Aleksandar's father arranged a clan reunion on a family property in Bosnia before the war. Aleksandar's mother tells him a story. During World War II a Muslim neighbor, fleeing Serbian Chetniks, begged her father for his horse. The father, a Serb, offered it without a word. When the Chetniks arrived, they beat the father viciously and threatened to kill him. Again, he said not a word. However, later he cursed ''this world and the bloody sun and this country where everyone needs my horse.''
In "A Coin," the narration integrates letters from Aida, an editor of film footage for foreign TV crews in war-torn Sarajevo, describing Sniper's Alley with the thoughts of a Bosnian who feels helplessly trapped in America while visiting Chicago, his focus on directed towards a cockroach in his room. Each is trapped but there is a world of difference between their experiences. Aida insists that what filmed horrors tell is not the real story but a `voyeur story `of their very own. She removes the most graphic footage from her footage. She has an unsuccessful affair with a veteran British cameraman who films the bloody stumps of a woman whose arms were blown off, instead of putting the camera down to help her. In Sarajevo, we see a black leather wallet, probably empty, a purse, agape like a mouth, a white plastic water vessel, with a bullet hole in its centre, a wet loaf of bread with ants crawling over it, a green-red-brown shawl, ornamented with snowflakes, dirty, a broken videotape lying on the ground, all left behind as people dash for safety and for life. Then, the snipers' victims are presented: "some of them may still be alive and twitching toward the distant cover, leaving a bloody trail behind, like snails".
Having achieved such a standard with the short stories, the novella was much to flabby in comparison . The author narrates Pronek's story, the misadventures and misapprehensions of an immigrant whose arrival is only physical since his mind and heart are elsewhere. The author uses the third person, as if to stress the remove. But there is too much working around the detail. Pronek's girlfriend, her family and a restaurant manager who fires him for ignoring the difference between romaine and iceberg lettuce are interesting in themselves but do not add up to what they probably should have. Perhaps it would have been better to have simply produced a collection of short stories.
I did not find this an easy read which is disappointing given the author's history and the importance of the stories he has to tell.