“The Noble Truths of Suffering” by Aleksandar Hemon

With this brilliant work, Hemon reclaims his initial desire to be the master of short story craft. Telling the times and existential suffering of his fictionalized alter ego, Hemon pieces together a perfect story in the fiction-memoir mode. Not only does he keep the border between the genres blurred, he inserts a meta dimension, making his own protagonist (Bosnian writer in Chicago) ponder on the real experiences (memoirish stuff) in the works of the famous American writer whom he meets in Sarajevo.

Hemon’s first person narrator is this time an even more disillusioned, pessimistic writer who does not relish in his exilic existence and does not like being marketed as a broken down, in-between character. In short, he is something of an anti-Rushdie character. Rushdie has become the epitome of an immigrant writer, heavily marketed as such. I love Hemon’s inversion of this modern-day cliché that is supposed to show Western appreciation of the rest of the world while in fact only maintaining the good cop bad cop routine.

The story bears resemblance to Colm Toibin’s great novel The Master, only offering more self-inflicted humor and self-distance that keep me wavering between two or even three levels of interpretation.

Hemon further manages to weave into his narrative flow an external plot summary from one of the American writer’s new books, thus producing a brilliant parallel between a despairing immigrant author with no social agency, and an American soldier in Iraq (the protagonist of the American’s new book), whose horrible actions put him in despair, and existential anguish. I do not want to reveal much of the finish, but the question of quality in soldiers and by the same token writers is put in an incredibly subtle, both expected and surprising way. Maybe writers do pretend to know the world, as he claims, maybe they do nothing more but craft evocative rhetoric without agency in the real world, but in this instance the evocation soldier/writer is capable of producing an interpretative brainstorm that is the sign of writer’s true agency and action, if there ever was one.

Hemon does what few other immigrant writers dare to do, leave foreign language sentences untranslated. This gesture does not reek of the authentic feel, but rather displays an inherent cynicism that highlights the outsider position of the Pulitzer winning American writer in the war-torn capital of Bosnia. Knowing what the Bosnian words mean does not make a terrible difference, interpretation-wise. Speaking of words, I still quite like Hemon’s insistence on using high-brow, formal, heavy words in quite ordinary, everyday contexts. These expressions never sound cheesy, or show-offy, or as symptoms of immigrant ignorance of English. On my view, this speaks highly of The New Yorker editors, because from my own experience so many magazines have editors with no sense of language/style play.

Find the story in the September 22, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. Read my review of Hemon’s latest novel The Lazarus Project in my book reviews archive.

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3 Responses to “The Noble Truths of Suffering” by Aleksandar Hemon

  1. kat magendie says:

    always love coming by here and seeing what you have read and reviewed!

  2. kat magendie says:

    Just stopping by to see if anything new is up!

  3. jay-leno says:

    very very interesting! now i can finally understand the book

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