The impulse to link stories is almost as old as the form itself. Think of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with its use of a "frame story", or Faulkner's
Yoknapatawpha County, the highly specific geographical and social landscape in which he corrals much of his work. Then there is the unified sensibility of the stories that make up Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid, which was enough to convince the judges of the 1980 Booker Prize that it could be considered a novel.
A writer of linked stories must somehow ground the collection in a specific setting while allowing each story to highlight different aspects of it. Aleksandar Hemon pulls this trick off brilliantly in his new collection. Superficially, the stories are given a common thread by Hemon's narrator - a Yugoslavian-born writer who, like his creator, finds himself in Chicago during the siege of Sarajevo. As the narrative follows an uneven chronology, we learn of his childhood friends and irascible adolescence and get to know his parents, whose histories beautifully expand the reader's sense of the conflict in Bosnia. We also meet a lot of the hypermasculine, as well as hypersensitive, men typical of Hemon's fiction - all products of what he refers to throughout the collection as "the war".
“The war" is the panoramic backdrop to each of these eight stories. It informs every thought and motive of each character and is the repository of the book's main underlying ideological assumptions - that "the beauty of youth is that reality never quells desire" and that it remains possible, through poetry, to "maintain the reality of a person's self in this cruelly unreal world".
In "Everything", the 17-year-old narrator is sent to Murska Sobota in Slovenia to buy a freezer chest for the family. Hemon juxtaposes a sordid world of empty bars and corrupt soldiers on the journey with the exhilarating buoyancy of the narrator, who views the world, despite its many dangers, as his sexual and intellectual plaything. A few years later, his outlook is rather different. In "Szmura's Room", one of the best stories in the collection, he meets Bogdan, a Ukrainian seeking refuge in the US who has seen "unspeakable things: people forced into minefields, pregnant women cut open, eyes gouged out with rusty spoons". Poetry is now his only respite from the hideousness of life.
In "The Conductor", the possibility that poetry alone can make sense of the senselessness of war is broached through the narrator's relationship with a famous poet, though it is in "The Bees, Part 1", when Hemon hands the reins of the story over to the protagonist's father, that he provides the most cogent - and emotionally arresting - argument for how art enables the human spirit to transcend even the most gruesome of realities.
Certain images or objects (unused notepads in hotel rooms, a green malachite ashtray) reappear across the various stories. The effect of this is
to locate a central emotional disposition for our narrator and to conjure a familiar physical world for the reader. But it is the multiplicity of perspectives at play that allows these stories to interact so seamlessly.
“Szmura's Room" opens with a description of Bogdan arriving at the flat where he is to stay, even though at this point the narrator has not actually met him. Perhaps because the narrator is a writer, he feels compelled to project himself on to this stranger - to use the story of another man's life to make sense of his own. "It was time, I thought, for us to meet. He reminded me so much of myself, as I had been not so long before."
An altogether different picture of himself emerges in the penultimate story, when a film-maker who is interested in "questions of 'identity' . . . about the Bosnian experience" wants to interview him. He relishes the opportunity, but somehow his attempts to represent himself collapse under the weight of a long anecdote about a childhood game. Only one of his identities is available at that moment, though others seep through in the act of remembrance.
In many ways, Love and Obstacles is a tableau of identities, several of which resemble Hemon himself, and all of which raise questions about "the Bosnian experience". My main complaint about the author's last book, The Lazarus Project, was that its two central narrative strands ran aground somewhat in the more expansive form of the novel. But in these stories, he has found a way of setting apparently incompatible things against one another so as to paint a wonderfully realised and unified portrait of an essentially conflicted sensibility.
Love and Obstacles
Picador, 210pp, £12.99
Rosalind Porter is senior editor at Granta.