|ALEKSANDAR HEMON LONGS FOR HIS BOSNIAN YOKNAPATAWPHA|
|Written by John Marks - Author/Producer|
|Thursday, 06 August 2009 11:06|
Shortly after putting down Aleksandar Hemon’s brilliant novel The Lazarus Project, feeling homesick perhaps, I picked up the Modern Library edition of the Snopes trilogy by William Faulkner. I hadn’t read Faulkner in twenty years, not since I began to see my own novels published, though I’ve always considered him one of my favorite authors, one of my indispensable authors, really.
Right away, I found myself at home. The sickness dissolved in words. Another sickness took its place.
But then, for me, Faulkner’s work is so deeply embedded in that idea of home. From the opening pages of The Hamlet, the first novel in this late trilogy about the rise and fall of the fortunes of the Snopes family, the landscape of the language—and that’s what the language feels like, a landscape—undulates and envelops, rising before and after the reader, as if from the first word of the first sentence we already moved on horseback at dusk through the seemingly fictional Yoknapatawpha County.
Here’s what I mean:
“Frenchman’s Bend was a section of rich river-bottom country lying twenty miles southeast of Jefferson. Hill-cradled and remote, definite yet without boundaries, straddling into two counties and owing allegiance to neither, it had been the original grant and site of a tremendous pre-Civil War plantation, the ruins of which—the gutted shell of an enormous house with its fallen stables and slave quarters and overgrown gardens and brick terraces and promenades—were still known as the Old Frenchman’s place, although the original boundaries now existed only on old faded records in the Chancery Clerk’s office in the county courthouse in Jefferson, and even some of the once-fertile fields had long since reverted to the cane-and-cypress jungle from which their first master had hewed them.”
Faulkner is not sentimental about this territory. It’s a dangerous, brooding realm, haunted by a past so thick with ghosts that the word itself never needs to arise. Ghosts are everywhere and prone to explode. Outsiders are noted and not generally welcome. Those who belong have special rights, it’s true, but they are also subsumed in rough existence. The price of belonging to Yoknapatawpha is a loss of self, something separate, whole and complete from the land, the neighbors, the rules of conduct; maybe it’s not the worst price to pay.
Reading Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian native who now lives in the United States and writes in English, one feels strongly the cost of liberation from home, the expulsion from that connection to a particular place and time that can be synonymous with meaning. It can also be synonymous with ignorance and hatred, though not necessarily.
Hemon left the city of Bosnian Sarajevo right before the war started. Sarajevo was annihilated by mortar shell and sniper fire. The city of his youth vanished beyond recall. Home was gone. He started over in America, which became, at best, half a home.
The Lazarus Project relates two stories. One is Hemon’s attempt to go back to his Balkan Yoknapatawpha, the ultimate tragicomedy, a road trip that starts in a trashed Ukraine and meanders through a catatonic Moldavia before reaching a Sarajevo not quite safe enough for nostalgia. The ostensible reason for the road trip is the second of the two stories, a sentimentalized account of an earlier immigrant’s murder at the hands of Chicago police.
In one sense, The Lazarus Project is a masterfully realized version of the book that Jonathan Safran Foer attemped in his overrated debut Everything Is Illuminated. It can’t be coincidence that Hemon’s novel seems to directly comment on the earlier book. Both novels involve trips back to the Ukraine to find traces of family in an effort to write stories about the remote experience of distant relatives. Both get laughs at the expense of the local color. Both of the stories within the novels highlight Jews and their persecution.
The Jewish story par excellence is the exodus from Egypt, and so all such tales inevitably grapple with home and homelessness.
But where Safran Foer stumbled in his unbearably precious second story about a shtetl, a garden variety parcel of magical realism, Hemon succeeds in giving us a tough-minded melodrama that feels as if it rises directly from the experiences in the more autobiographical narrative. Hemon uses his expulsion from the city of his youth to come to tell a story about the tragic price required to find a new home.
That’s a central insight in both Hemon and Faulkner, different as they are. Home is not free. It comes at a price. Often enough, it comes at the ultimate price.
Rereading Hemon after a glance at the Snopes trilogy, I came across a Faulknerian moment, or it struck me as one anyway. Hemon’s narrator, Vladimir Brik, recalls a singular virtue of home:
“The one thing I remembered and missed from before-the-war Sarajevo was a kind of unspoken belief that everyone could be whatever they claimed they were–each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside. If someone told you he had flown in a cockpit or had been a teenage gigolo in Sweden or had eaten mamba kabobs, it was easy to choose to believe him; you could choose to trust his stories because they were good.”
That toleranace of blarney may be a particular quality of Sarajevo, but to my mind it’s more than that. Faulkner, with his legions of talkers and tall-tale-tellers, would have understood. Tolerance of half-truth or untruth is the essence of belonging to a place where everyone more or less knows the real truth about you and therefore can afford latitude. A certain kind of fear doesn’t exist. A sort of freedom does. Both the fear and the freedom are illusions, as Hemon demonstrates, but they are powerful ones and not to be dismissed lightly.
At times, I think our great cultural split has more to do with the idea of home than with the surface issues of gender, race, religion or sexuality. Home is the deeper issue. Who gets to decide what our common home looks like? Who will feel most comfortable here? Who will always be the outsider? Who, once on the inside, will slowly but surely find themselves on the outside? Who will win through violence? Who will be expelled? Who destroyed?
These are the much deeper and more important matters that lie beneath our controversies of the moment, our “birther” movements, our objections to comments about “wise Latinas”, our white cops arresting black professors. Right now, unless I’m much mistaken, no one in this country really feels at home.