Uneven but not uninteresting stories from first-timer Hemon, a Conradian figure, an exile from Sarajevo who has lived in Chicago for eight years, remaking himself into an American writer.
The collection is comprised of seven stories and a novella, `Blind Joszef Pronek & Dead Souls`—and as the title of that longer work suggests—some of the author’s often cynical humor can be traced back to other East European writers like Gogol and Kafka. But there are also traces of influences as various as Borges and Calvino in the puzzle-joke story `The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders.` Hemon seems fascinated with trying to reproduce the creepy tactility of decay and, as might be expected from a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, extremes of senseless violence. At its worst, the result is a piece like `A Coin,` which recounts the suffering of the besieged civilians of Sarajevo in somewhat shopworn, overfamiliar terms unintentionally echoing the voyeurism that it accuses Western journalists of perpetrating. On the other hand, particularly in the novella, a recounting of the wanderings of a Sarajevan transplanted to Chicago at the outset of the civil war, and in `The Sorge Spy Ring,` a longish, clever mix of autobiographical reminiscence and historical fact with a totally unexpected dark ending, Hemon displays a considerable command of sudden shifts in tone, shuttling swiftly but surely between black comedy and bleak reality. The volume is shot through with a dry, deadpan humor that is clearly a defensive carapace grown in response to decades of Stalinist/Titoist falsifications and repression, as well as an understandable fascination with the grim detritus of Balkan history.
Hemon's prose suffers occasionally from the overstudious diction of the non-native speaker, but he is clearly a writer of some promise.