Boyd Tonkin: Grand views on the sidelines of history

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A teenage adventurer stumbles around a chaotic tract of land where gangs of men try to kill one another. The racket makes his ears hurt. Some bodies lie around, and injured horses, which upset him more. Cannonballs prune a stand of willows. He's robbed, gives chase, and flakes out. "Is this a real battle?" he asks. "Sort of", replies a veteran.

Thus the Battle of Waterloo, as rendered as a mud-caked farce in the first part of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. These chapters, written in 1838, amount to as huge a landmark in the development of fiction as Napoleon's defeat in 1815 did in the destiny of Europe. So often since, great modern writing has tiptoed into history via side entrances, broken windows and unlocked gates. It has found its reality in the past amid margins and footnotes, not by echoing the headlines of grand or dire events. While kitsch stands tall in the front rank, art skulks behind the lines.

Sometimes – very seldom – a work of fiction comes along that confirms this post-heroic insight with such assurance and succinctness that it could supplant a shelf-load of treatises. The eight stories of Aleksandar Hemon's Love and Obstacles (Picador, £12.99) do with guile and gusto for the genocidal war in his Bosnian homeland what his three novels – from with The Question of Bruno – have sought in more diffuse formats. To adapt Emily Dickinson, they tell all the truth, but tell it slant.

Hemon – the tormented refugee genius, Sarajevo-born to Ukrainian and Serb parents, painfully stranded in Chicago on a visit when war broke out at home in 1992, hand-to-mouth survivor of America's crap jobs as he learnt to write in English – sends up this hype-myth of himself something rotten. All these tales are told by a narrator with an unreliable version of that real-world biography. When courted by an earnest Bosnian video artist, the teller worries about his warm, nosy, guest-smothering parents – who loom loveably, hilariously large here. He frets that if Alma meets them they will undermine "the image of the noble, worldly misfit who found his salvation in writing".

Rueful, bruised, self-deprecating, recounting every pratfall and pretension in a prose that crackles with wit dances with invention, the narrator in Love and Obstacles often warns about the risks of treating literature as life. His father, the bee-keeping diplomat from a now-extinct state, hates the idea of fiction. In his Canadian exile, he plans a "real book" of memories. Yet it turns out that oblique imagination alone, not direct reportage, can write that "real book".

Bosnia's 1990s ordeal sighs and grimaces at the edge of our field of vision. "The Conductor" - about the hack Sarajevo poet Muhamed D., whom the sorrows of war absurdly transform into a true master – shows us a tipsy, trivial café of prewar literati, unable to foresee (in a typically hair-raising phrase) "the sky descending on our heads like the shadow of a falling piano in a cartoon". That shadow-piano always looms, but only ever falls just out of sight. The nearest we get to the front of Europe's most pitiless post-1945 conflict comes in the howlingly comic allegory of bellicose schoolkids who try to recapture a "garden of freedom" in "American Commando". It's as ferocious as Lord of the Flies, and immeasurably funnier.

These stories detest grandstanding didacticism. Macalister, the Zen-calm Vietnam-vet novelist who visits postwar Sarajevo in the last piece, scoffs at the post-traumatic wisdom of literature: "There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side". But Hemon has so much to teach writers and readers – not least in the spine-shivering finale to this story, which blasts the solid earth from under us like a leftover landmine. And part of what he knows stems from his vantage-point on the scrappy sidelines of history. Our narrator's boyish self loved to wander the corridors of school during lessons, catching eavesdropped snatches of classroom drama. Why did that excite him? Alma asks. "I felt free... There but not there."

P.S.In competition-averse Britain, a place intensely relaxed about consumer-shafting stitch-ups between corporate bullies, bad behaviour pays. Earlier in the summer, Penguin struck an outrageous deal with WH Smith – a monopoly retailer in so many locations – to stock only its own foreign travel guides at more than 250 WHS stores. Elsewhere, legislators and media would have pounced; in this land of spineless toadying to every whim of the high-street giants, only insiders such as travel writers seemed to care much. Now it emerges – surprise, surprise - that this blatant market fix has led to a sales boost for Penguin travel titles (which include the Rough Guides: shame on them as well). The deal lasts 12 months in the first instance. Penguin deputy CEO Tom Weldon, due to step up to the top job next year, should scrap it after that.