A Masterful Storyteller Between Worlds

“And who are you?” she asked…and then he told her who he was, with fatigued detachment, as if retelling the plot of a tedious Eastern European movie.

The 1970s and 1980s were a golden period for many young people in Yugoslavia. The universities and some high schools were first-rate. Cultural life was flourishing in the cities. The same plays and movies one saw in Western capitals were being shown there. The young read contemporary European and American literature, listened to rock music and the blues, and occasionally traveled abroad. Literary weeklies and periodicals proliferated, thanks to government support, and published a large number of translations of fiction and poetry; so, for example, there’d be an issue devoted to contemporary Argentinian short stories and another to Scandinavian poetry, and so on.

Freddy Rikken
Aleksandar Hemon, Amsterdam, 2004

I heard a Croatian publisher recently lament the years when a newly translated foreign novel would sell out in two days. I recall how incredulous and contemptuous many older intellectuals were of the popularity of Samuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard, for they had probably grown up reading Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don and watching Soviet films. Then all that changed. With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the cultural horizons narrowed everywhere. The nationalists won and the very idea of “Yugoslavia” faded away. Those who regarded themselves as citizens of the world ran for their lives.

That’s what happened to Aleksandar Hemon. He came to the United States from his native Sarajevo on a government-sponsored cultural exchange program for young journalists in the spring of 1992. He was twenty-seven years old. The visit was expected to last a month and he was due to return home on May 1, but the ethnic conflict that had been heating up over the past year in Bosnia and Herzegovina turned into a real war during his absence and just as he was about to take a flight home, Sarajevo was encircled by Serbian nationalists and cut off from the rest of the world. The situation being what it was, Hemon’s father advised him to stay away.

With so little advance notice, this must have been a painful decision to make. In addition to feeling guilty for abandoning his parents and friends, he must have also been anxious about what would become of him if he stayed in the United States. Stranded in Chicago, separated from everyone he knew, he watched the daily destruction of his hometown on TV, the excruciating scenes of people fleeing the sniper fire or lying in their own blood. It was to become the longest military blockade of a city in modern history, lasting nearly four years and surpassing in length the famous World War II sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad.

At the onset of the wars of secession in Yugoslavia, as Hemon recalls, one could still…

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