New worlds of jumbo gumbo

The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon (Picador, £12.99, 250pp) Music for the Third Ear by Susan Schwartz Senstad (Doubleday, £12.99, 208pp)
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The Independent Culture

In the story which supplies Aleksandar Hemon's title, Josef Pronek, a Bosnian writer and a refugee in the United States, tries to tell a fellow refugee, whose name is Hemon, how easy it is to become a stranger to oneself in their new life - like Bruno Schulz's hero in the envoi to the story, who walks away from a mirror while his own back walks off in the opposite direction.

The real Hemon (or the real Pronek) has been called a new Nabokov, a new Kundera, for this, his first book; and has had the full razzamatazz of American hype turned upon him. I hope this has not split him even more, and that he has had the good sense not to believe it. He is very, very good; but - thankfully - he still has somewhere to go.

It is precisely when he mimics (for example) Kundera that Hemon seems to me least interesting: when he cites a "Herr Alexander Hemon" of the German Foreign Office Archives, for instance, or lists every chess match ever played by one of his characters. The first story, "Islands", never soars, because he pins it to the ground with 33 pointless numbered sections; and the second, "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders", is a Borgesian game such as (to my mind) no one but Borges can play.

You have to get past the first two stories, therefore; but then Aleksandar Hemon begins to deserve his praise. The third, "The Sorge Spy Ring", looks like a literary tease as well, with at least one footnote per page, often more note than noted. But this is not just a clever game.

The ten-year-old narrator of the top story has been reading the bottom one, in a book called Spies of World War II; and conceives the idea that his father is a spy. Searching for evidence, he finds a dim little dossier of communist Yugoslavia - hotel brochures from Moscow and Tripoli, Party cards, Aeroflot matches, plus his parents' wedding pictures, condoms, Valium. And then, suddenly, fantasy and reality meet, and his father is arrested, just like Sorge. On the last page Tito (on the top) and Sorge (on the bottom) both die. "I suppose this is the end," the father says; but we know it was only the beginning.

Now follow two wonderful family-myth stories, one set in a clan gathering - a "Hemoniad" - in which the estranged Bosnian and Serbian branches of the family are brought together, in 1991. Once again, the irony of what is to come is left unspoken.

Tales are told of their fabled roots in France, after which handsome cousin Vlado calls himself Belmondo. "'Belmondo is hungry,' he would announce to his mother when returning from work in a leather-goods factory." At the end, the narrator and his parents endlessly rewind the videotape of the Hemoniad during their exile in Schaumburg, Illinois.

Then comes the best story of all, perhaps the best story of war I have ever read. It too is subtly constructed - but here the split not only fits, it is essential. A male refugee in the US writes letters (in italics) to a girlfriend left behind, who writes (in Roman) of life in war-torn Sarajevo. Both are conscious of the impossibility of telling their incommensurate truths, of putting war and exile into words - or pictures, like Aida's cameraman lover Kevin.

Aida edits all the worst images out of Kevin's film, and keeps them on a tape she calls "Cinema Inferno". The letter-writer photographs his empty chair, "a flash in the mirror". And just because they are so aware they cannot tell, they almost can. When packs of starving pets attack people, the German shepherds go for the throat, poodles for the calves; when Aunt Fatima dies, her family, marooned in their flat, have to throw her out of the window. And Aida's account of the dash across Snipers' Alley is worth a hundred Cinema Infernos: the experience is so extreme you forget it every time; afterwards you put a hand in your pocket, "where you may or may not find a worthless coin".

Finally, there is "Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls", the refugee's tale: also excellent, but the most depressing story. Poor Pronek's terrible jobs - kitchen help, waiter, cleaner ("Being a novice, Pronek became a bathroom cleaner, the 'shit boy'"); the ghastly, ghastly Americans, none of whom has a clue where Bosnia is, and all of whom say instantly "Isn't this the greatest country on earth?", "Thousands of years of hatred, I guess", and "Can't you people just chill out?"

"Josef Pronek" reminded me of a Holocaust survivor friend of mine who says "If I had known what life in America would be, I wouldn't have had the strength to survive." But America is, in fact, a land of survivors, a moraine of old wars: as Hemon delicately remembers, in the section of this story called "The Question of Bruno". Please don't ever chill out, Aleksandar; stay as you are, a dark, droll, beady-eyed writer.

It's bad luck for Susan Schwartz Senstad to turn up at the same time as Hemon. Hers is also a story of past and present refugees, this time in Norway: Mette, the middle-aged daughter of Holocaust survivors, takes in Zheljka and Mesud, who have fled, like Pronek, from Sarajevo. What she tells us is true, and not easy: the mixed motives of givers, the angry pride of those who are forced to receive; and the unending consequences of war. But how she tells it is - well, American (Senstad is an American married to a Norwegian.)

Everything must be big in America ("Small bowl - large gumbo. Big bowl - jumbo gumbo," as Pronek's boss explains). So Zheljka is not only serial-raped but has a rape baby; not one but two childless women try to adopt him, suffer their own miseries, and end (or one does) in suicide. All of this is told head-on, without a single joke, and far too often in poetry ("his bellymouth is cut... and he unthroats the cry", means that the child is born).

Everyone suffers, continually, unrelievedly and only. But not even Holocaust survivors only suffer; and what makes their suffering real is the bits of ordinariness in between.

Zheljka tells Mette that she is a "war-tourist": not interested in her, but only in her suffering. Senstad's heart is in the right place; but the same is true of her.

Carole Angier is writing the biography of Primo Levi

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