The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon
First published in 2000, Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno seems more relevant than ever before. The recurrent image in the eight stories of this collection is one of a camera. Hemon asks us as readers: what can/cannot be recorded? What is/isn’t recorded? What is/isn’t worthy of history? Hemon may be said to theorize history and the production of history like Walter Benjamin, but the use of the leitmotif of a camera could just as well reference the movie Twelve Monkeys; and while this reference ostensibly places the work in the realm of the postmodern—of what can/cannot be seen and thus theorized—the watchful and observant eye of both Hemon and his characters alludes to and invokes many authors from the Western canon—but also movies, music and photography.
One is consistently racked in the case of Hemon to find a true, original influence: one could call to mind Conrad—in Hemon’s use and perhaps intentional abuse or test of English—his second-language like Conrad—or the world of Kafka— Hemon’s dream-like and labyrinthine imagination: “The banal symbolism of these dreams notwithstanding, we should note that they suggest the situation of being in a maze” (169)—or W.G. Sebald—in Hemon’s use of photographs to alter and question our view of history, oftentimes personalizing it. All of this and much more is synthesized together in Hemon’s stories, which makes them hard to pin down and serpentine.
But this is partially the point with Hemon. What Hemon is trying to tell us is that all of the influences that account for our perception of what he is or what his “Sarajevo” is, for whom he dedicates the collection and situates many of the stories, is not the real Sarajevo. Again, it is just another perception that can complicate the already amorphous dimensions of his subject matter.
Each story in its own right is told a different way. Each in its way presents a different slice of the same event. Some stories are told from various points of view, and what unifies them is their attention to the question of what can/cannot define as historic or as history. The first story Islands is told in short vignettes, apparently “islands” of narratives. Then there is the second story The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders, a biography of multiple dictionary definitions of the same character in short one-sentence paragraphs, complete with end notes. The striking portrait of Alphonse demands puts us in wonder as to whether a character like Alphonse ever existed: can a character with such political involvements, possess more prominent sexual intrigues? In other stories, Hemon employs footnotes right within the core of the narrative to add some heft or intentionally distort our perception of fiction as history or fact by making his narratives something close to an essay. In this sense, Hemon belongs alongside Eduardo Galeono’s marvelous Memory of Fire trilogy, which attempted to recount a different history of the Americas in short newspaper-like snippets.
But Hemon’s stories are most relevant to us today living in the Iraq War era. Hemon’s contexts and networks of associations are so well appointed that they seem to predict the unlikely brutality of the Iraq War. As the first war shot in “realtime,” Hemon conceives of the perfect scenario, pitting the shot of gun against the one of the camera: “He was not looking at the camera and the reader behind it, Pronek thought, not knowing whether being in the picture would save him or kill him” (186). In The Question of Bruno we are witness to the flowering of a great writer with something genuine and penetrating to say about an increasingly globalizing world.