The Question of Bruno
Imagine you are handed a work entitled "The Transformation," written by a young Czech author who has immigrated to the United States. The story is an account of an obscure man, Jakob H., who awakens one morning to find that during the night he has been transformed into a giant firefly.
Most literate Westerners would politely inform the aspiring author that an obvious ripoff of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is not the best way to launch one's career. Alternatively, given that almost all authors go through a period of mimicry, you might charitably conclude that the young man is still in the sophomoric stage of his development, and some day will find his own voice.
But suppose that the young immigrant's work has been issued by a major publisher who showers him with money, and that he is unanimously hailed as a new Nabokov or Conrad who has miraculously broken through to literary greatness in an adopted tongue. Imagine further that virtually none of the critics who fall all over themselves to praise the young author seems to have ever heard of Kafka, but take the entire production as fresh and new.
Something like this has occurred with regard to Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian writer in his mid 30s who arrived in Chicago just prior to the outbreak of the Bosnian war in 1992. In The Question of Bruno, Hemon has produced a first volume of narratives that is, in its essential part, a pure and simple imitation of the outstanding Yugoslav author Danilo Kis. Nor is this a matter of mere influence or mentoring. Hemon has clearly set out to replicate the style and themes of Kis, on the apparently safe assumption that British and American readers will not recognize the imposture.
An imposture it certainly is. Hemon's literary expropriation is so bold as to constitute an unethical act. Not a plagiarism, per se, but something very close: a theft of style.
The London publisher Picador reportedly paid $250,000 for this collection of pastiches and immigrant sketches, which would not have done credit to a college freshman. The book has been released here by Doubleday, a highly reputable publisher, and has achieved remarkable critical success.
Novelist Amy Tan, who can hardly be blamed for knowing nothing about East European literature; composed a blurb declaring, "Aleksandar Hemon is a striking new voice in fiction. I admire his work tremendously." Susan Horsburgh babbled delightedly in the international edition of Time magazine that Hemon "freely marries history with fiction," which happened to be the exact modus operandi of Kis. Novelist George Packer, in Salon, described Hemon's "casual, almost whimsical crisscrossing of grand history and personal story so that they mirror and mock each other" as if it were a novelty. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Richard Eder referred to one of Hemon's most obvious imitations as "literary miracle-working."
Hemon's posthumous victim, Danilo Kis (1935-89), a Yugoslav author of mixed Serbian and Hungarian Jewish background, is unquestionably , the greatest of his country's recent writers, particularly in terms of world acceptance. His work was significantly promoted in the U.S. by no less than Susan Sontag. Nearly all of his books-including A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, The Encyclopedia of the Dead, Hourglass, and Garden, Ashes-are in print in English, which makes Hemon's appropriation -- and the gullibility of the Western literary establishment -- all the more outrageous.
It has become a commonplace to compare Kis, now considered one of the European literary immortals, with Borges, in his mixture of personal and public history, political and esoteric knowledge. Indeed, he is probably the only European whose work bears legitimate comparison with the Argentine genius, and in some respects he was even greater.
But Kis was more than a mere man of letters. His family is symbolic of recent Balkan history. Kis was born not long before a massacre of Jews and Serbs by Hungarian Nazis in the Vojvodina area of northern Serbia. Kis himself saw the bodies of the dead lying in the street. His father died in Auschwitz in 1944. His mother's Serb Orthodox (i.e., Christian) identity provided a cover for the rest of the family's survival, but they fled to the Hungarian countryside and did not return to Yugoslavia until years after the war.
Kis became a major dissident figure in the late Tito era, persecuted by the cultural bureaucrats in Belgrade -- a fact that may have significantly contributed to his early death. He also developed a second career in France. He is still worshiped by thousands, if not millions of young intellectuals in the countries that succeeded the former Yugoslav state. Indeed, admiration for him is so ubiquitous in that part of the world that when I complained about Hemon to one Sarajevo journalist, he shrugged: "Everyone here has published an imitation of Kis."
Yes, but not all of them have been rewarded by a fat advance and acclaim in the West as a budding Nabokov. Most outrageously, Hemon has been hailed for his breakthrough talent in writing English, the language in which many Anglo-American critics presumed he composed The Question of Bruno, when the book is mainly a translation of Hemon's 1997 volume, The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders, published in Bosnian in Sarajevo. Did Picador or Doubleday have any idea that they were paying so much money for, in effect, a translation of an obscure Bosnian work?
Hemon's appropriation is so exact that one can match his imitative tales to their originals with very little effort. Kis invented a kind of "tragic Zelig" genre. That is, as in the film by Woody Allen, Kis composed narratives in which invented, semianonymous witnesses convey to us the basic human feelings behind the great and often horrifying dramas of history. But Zelig made us all laugh, while in most cases Kis can make us weep; by contrast, Hemon can only elicit a shrug.
For example, Kis's most famous story, "A Tomb for Boris Davidovich," for which the volume of the same title is named, spins out the tale of a forgotten Bolshevik revolutionary found at every climactic moment of the Russian insurrectionary struggle: leading a union of Jewish workers here, making bombs there, being toasted at his wedding by the sailors on a Red gunboat fighting in the Russian civil war, and finally perishing emblematically in the Gulag:
Similarly, in one of his most glaring examples of appropriation, the story "The Sorge Spy Ring," included in The Question of Bruno, Hemon melds his fantasies during his Yugoslav childhood -- about his own father, a much more banal figure than the murdered parent of Kis -- with the biography of the Russian spy Richard Sorge. It is as if Hemon wishes to slip into the personality of Kis, who commented in an interview that in his book Garden, Ashes "it's a matter of metaphor, of the awe a child has for his father. His father is always greater."
But Hemon's version is an obvious ripoff, to put it indelicately, of "A Tomb for Boris Davidovich." Hemon substitutes the mystery and glamour of a Stalinist agent operating in pre-1941 Japan for the life of the romantic conspirator immolated by the Bolshevik revolution. There is a major difference, however, and it is a moral one, of which Hemon seems shockingly unaware. Kis, tormented beyond measure by the horrors of his childhood, wrote of Jewish religious scholars martyred in the pyres of anti-Semitism, Irish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War who end up in the Gulag, and Bolshevik pioneers tortured in the same system of imprisonment and exile. In Kis there is always the presence of an immense tragedy, in which lives were lost or dreadfully twisted by the cruelties of history. In Hemon, we have merely a reflection of these dramas, secondhand, in the narcissism of a postmodernist youth.
Hemon's offense is not his self-insertion in the narrative, which is common enough these days, but that he does not see the difference between the career of a mercenary Stalinist spy and the struggles of a generation of idealistic rebels who sacrificed their lives in the vortex of great social and political changes. For Hemon, Hitler and his cronies are merely a subject for amusement. Kis understood that a profound pain and existential horror made the destinies of life and intellect in a place like Yugoslavia wholly different from their parallels in Paris, New York, or California. Hemon commutes idly between the two worlds.
In the interviews he gives here, there, and everywhere, Hemon never manages to mention Kis as a model or even an influence. Rather, he speaks of his debt to J. D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Bret Easton Ellis, and even Jay McInerney. Although he was spared the horrors of the Bosnian war, in publicity photographs Hemon is shown looking over his shoulder in anxiety, as if he anticipates that someone will, in the end, find him out. As well he should.