March 29, 2020: “Islands” by Aleksandar Hemon

Hello, Story366!

Yesterday, the fam and I went for a hike to what has normally been a sparsely crowded trail. It’s a mile north of the city limits and isn’t a loop (meaning you have to just walk out for a while, then turn around and retrace your steps), keeping the average hobbyist away. Yesterday, all of a sudden, it was pretty crowded. It was a gorgeous day, in the high seventies and breezy, coming off a day of thunderstorms and even some hail. People wanted to get out, and sooner or later, everyone’s going to find out about nice things. Such is life.

Sadly, we had to turn around about ten minutes into our walk, as most everyone else on the trail wasn’t adhering to social distancing. Since all of this started, we have been walking along the right edge of every trail we hit, usually in single file, moving several feet off whenever we pass someone or someone wants to pass us. Yesterday, however, we ran into groups of people who just weren’t cooperating. One group, who’d been wading in the river, spread themselves out on the trail, drying their shirts on a ledge as they all put their shoes and socks back on. Since this was under an overpass, there was no way to avoid them; this is where we turned around. Another group—a couple and their eight or nine kids—lurched up behind us, their kids running wild, also spreading out across the entire trail. Two women were walking dogs, on long leashes, and took up the whole trail, us having to push ourselves against a fence to avoid them and their pitbulls. Several couples walked hand in hand, in the center of the trail, not giving any room. What’s worse, all of this is bad trail etiquette even when there’s no coronavirus scare. Yesterday, their stupidity was compounded. And it’s starting to piss me off.

We’ve all witnessed the scenes at the bars before St. Patrick’s Day, the beaches during spring break, and other gatherings of people ignoring this lockdown. The trails were the one place we could actually go, but now I wonder if even that’s going to be a good idea. Part of it is me not wanting to get sick or for my family to get sick. Another part, I must admit, is how mad all of this makes me. When a couple of mouth-breathing jackasses spring along, hand in hand, basically pushing us to the side, it makes me think they’re rude, or maybe just self-absorbed; during this particular crisis, it flat-out infuriates me. After the fifth or sixth instance of these imbeciles taking over the trail—not to mention giving us the stinkeye when we moved over—my hike felt ruined. The last thing I need is to head out to get some fresh air and relax, only to get worked up and see my blood pressure rise.

I don’t think I’m dumb enough at this stage of my life to actually get into it with anyone—to hit someone would be a definite violtion of the six-foot rule. Then again, if anyone touches me, or worse, says something to me about being smart, I might lose it. Is that what we need? Maybe I just need to chill the fuck out. Or maybe we need to take our walks on campus—which is abandoned—for the millionth time. Ugh.

For today, I got into that “I’ve had these forever” stack again, this time picking up Aleksandar Hemon‘s collection, The Question of Bruno, out in 2001 from Vintage. Hemon has gone on to great success since this, his first book, publishing four highly touted novels. Currently, he’s penning the forthcoming Matrix sequel. That’s a pretty impressive progression, especially considering Hemon emigrated to the U.S.—to Chicago—from Sarajevo in 1992, barely speaking English. Makes me think I should have read him sooner. Also makes me think I should be doing more with my own writing, in my native language.

I read the first four stories in The Question of Bruno today, and will focus this entry on the opener, “Islands.” “Islands” is told in numbered vignettes, most about a pargraph long (though sometimes, there’s a scene packed in). It’s about a kid’s weeklong trip to Mljet, an island off the coast of Croatia, what, at the time, was Yugoslavia. The boy, who’s never named, travels by boat with his parents and meets some aunts and uncles, stays with them, where they enjoy the beaches and sites, basically getting away from the mainland for a while.

I’ll get into this more in a bit, but reading The Question of Bruno is like reading a book of twentieth-century Eastern European history, especially that of that former Yugoslavia, Hemon’s home country. While this story is set during a relatively peaceful time—remember, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo—there’s a lot of recent history that has scarred these people (on top of the ongoing civil wars).

This boy, our protagonist, gets a lot of the horrible details of his country from his uncles while on this getaway, particularly Uncle Julius. While the family treks to the beach or examines the family beehives (lots of beehives in this book), Uncle Julius regales our young hero with stories of occupiers, pirates, and snakes, which all more or less serve as metaphors for each other, for their history. We hear of how the island was rid of its stifling snake infestation by importing a ton on mongoose (mongeese?) from Africa to kill the snakes, only to see the mongoose bring about another kind of tyranny. This smacks of how “liberation” usually goes, how occupied countries often trade one evil for something worse. I don’t know my Yugoslvian history, but I’m pretty sure this story is referring to the Germans and the Russians (as a Pole, this sounds all too familiar).

We, as in the protagonist kid, also hear about Uncle Julius’ time in Russian prisons, about a guy he knew who found a way to survive, only to extend his anguish, make his suffering last. Again, I can’t help but think this is standing for something else.

Eventually, the family does leave the island, returning home, only to find things aren’t quite the same as they were when they left. Hemon sneaks in one final history lesson, as he’s right, nothing’s ever like you remember it. Or maybe he’s pointing out what kind of an effect neglect has on a community—the family made no plans to care for their plants or pets and sees the consequences when they return. Even the boy’s longing for his lost hat—it blows off his head and into the sea at the start of the story—is another lesson, this about the nature of loss. Everything in “Islands”—where nothing really happens, I’ll note—stands for something else. In that way, “Islands” is a masterpiece. I just wish I knew more about this country so it’d have its full effect.

Other stories function in the same vein, including a great deal of the history of these people, often overlapping with grand figures and events. “The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders” is a biography, told in vignettes, of one man who seems to have been the most connected and influential man of the century, having run-ins with Stalin, Hitler, Eva Braun (with whom he has an affair), and Milošević. It’s a tall tale, part Paul Bunyan and part Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, but there still seems to be truth here, something to gain.

“The Sorge Spy Ring” is a dual story, one told from the perspective of a boy who thinks his father is a spy, the other told in third person via footnotes, the very real and detailed story of Richard Sorge, a real-life spy. This story is about reality and story intermingling, depending on what perspective you believe.

Lastly, I read “The Accordian,” which is mostly from the point of view of Archduke Ferdinand, his fateful journey along the parade route, and a man with an accordian he spies right before his assassination. At the end, the perspective switches to a first-person storyteller, who might be Hemon himself, who might be a metafictional stand-in, comparing the accordian story to what really happened.

I enjoyed reading from The Question of Bruno, engaging myself with Aleksandar Hemon’s style, his mission, and his lessons. I like the fiction moves he makes, ustilizing unique formats, approaches, and perspectives, but also spy the longing, the suffering, and isolation of these characters. I never did find out who Bruno is, not getting to that reference yet, though I’m starting to think that Bruno might be the author, as this book feels strongly autobiographical. Overall, this was time well spent today, checking so many boxes for what a book can do, what fiction can be.