White House wanderings

The Question of Bruno By Aleksandar Hemon (Picador £12.99)
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A Bosnian author travels to America on a scholarship in 1991 and becomes an unwilling refugee when war breaks out at home. Within five years, he graduates from phrase-book English to writing stories in his adopted tongue. Picador like the sound of Aleksandar Hemon enough to pay a six-figure sum for his first book, and they're selling him as "the new Nabokov". Hemon's first book, a collection of stories about war, espionage, family and separation, contains little to justify the comparison (aside from a preoccupation with footnotes) but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In place of Nabokov's singing line, his icy lyricism, Hemon has a heavy way of handling words - it feels as though he can drag in objects and experiences with the gravity of his phrasing.

It's a gruff, Mittel-European style and Hemon's English is bafflingly unidiomatic. Take this passage, from the first story in the book, a memoir of a childhood holiday: "I went down the steps and declared my thirst. Aunt Lyudmila walked over to the dark corner on my right-hand side, turned on the light ablaze, and there was a concrete box." The point, it seems as the book develops, is to make us feel some of the oddness of the world. The Question of Bruno ranges in manner from "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders", a series of comic-mythical anecdotes, done like the life of a medieval saint, to "Exchange of Pleasant Words", a misty-eyed reflection on the author's family history. It's bound together by recurring characters and events.

The central work is a novella, "Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls". It describes the arrival of Pronek (an alter ego for the author) in the United States and his attempts to make a life there. The problem with the weaker parts of The Question of Bruno is that the humour falls rather flat. Hemon's off-beat metaphorical chain of thought is peculiar, but it's not very "funny ha-ha", at least not to my ear. The novella succeeds because it dramatises this failing as the burden of Jozef Pronek, who is forever making blackly humorous comments which are met with blank incomprehension by his American interlocutors. The joke ends up being against Pronek, rather than the Americans:

"'I always wandered,' Pronek said, incorrectly, 'Why it is called White House? Do you have to be white to live there?'

"The man did not find it amusing, so he said, 'No, it is because it is made of white marble.'"

Hemon's odd style comes into its own in "Blind Jozef Pronek...", because there he is using his idiosyncratic English to describe the experiences of an alien. When you realise this, the rest of the book falls into place. The Question of Bruno adds up to a fractured view of a man, described at the intersecting points of his childhood fantasy life, his family history and his national destiny. It's a sort of a route-map for Hemon's journey towards the English language.