Another friend talks about growing up in Hollywood, having a Hollywood mom with Hollywood cousins. As far back as her family goes, the stories take place on large streets in large houses with so much money that the money becomes like dust--to which the family develops an allergy.
And still another friend, his history is complete madness. His schizophrenic mother used to walk him to school in her pajamas, and packed him cans of corn for lunch without a can opener. As an adult, he found that his mother was born on the same day as his great-great-grandmother, and inherited her disease from this ancient woman. His guess is that this ancient woman must have tried to take her children, in the late 1800s, to school in her pajamas as well. This ancient woman is somehow so connected to his present life, he has told me, that he collects old Sears catalogues and cuts out the women in bloomers and then glues them into a photo book.
In Aleksandar Hemon's new book, The Question of Bruno, history is the unasked-for gift: Lives are received from ancestors, already bearing a recognizable shape and texture. Hemon measures, like a dressmaker, how well each history fits on each character: Is it loose? Does this history suit? Is it out of fashion, the history that consumes a person? Can the history be made to fit better, or will it always feel like a dress that should be given away?
From the outset, Hemon entangles his own histories with the souls of fictitious characters. Characters other than himself inhabit and tell the stories, but this book is a photo album of Hemon's own personal geography: the former Yugoslavia--more specifically, Bosnia during the war--and then Chicago, where he lives now. When his characters stray too deep into historical context, Hemon steps right in to tell a few things and keep the reader straight. "J. B. Tito was the Yugoslav communist leader for thirty-five long years," begins the first entry in an early chapter called "Notes." "My childhood was saturated with histories of his just enterprises. My favorite one has always been the one in which he, at the age of twelve, found a whole, cooked pig's head in the house pantry, hoarded for Christmas, and, without telling his brothers and sisters, gorged himself with it on his own--an ominous act for a future communist head of a state. He was sick for days afterward (fat overdose), and was additionally punished by being banned from the Christmas dinner. Later on, he lost interest in Christmas, but never lost passion for pigs and heads." Including entries for Gavrilo Princip, Rosa Luxemburg ("a terribly nice name for a revolutionary"), and other past Yugoslavian figures, the "Notes" chapter quickly disintegrates from a description of historical context to a description of the imaginative power each entry holds in Hemon's mind.
The effect, intentional or not, is to connect the fictional source point in a story (within the character) to the historical source point in a story (in the author) with a strong, straight, bold line. World War II, the great spies of Russia, and ancient Croatia are personal, private matters to characters who weren't even alive to experience them; World War II is a secret in a young boy's mind. The grand scope of any large historical matter loses its shape and reshapes itself around the individual. All history begins to orbit around the character and then, somewhat magically, the reader. You start to realize your own personal imagination of World War II (I started thinking about my Uncle Robert, who was shot down over Holland and hid from the Nazis in a barn. The story started to fit me better; for once, it didn't feel like a movie I hadn't seen but had only heard about).
The book is not easy to read. The stories are a lot like poetry: The narrative is often withheld, and the reader has to leap and leap from one image to the next. In the first story, "Islands," a boy from Sarajevo is on vacation among the islands off the Croatian coast. The story is built from 33 vignettes, like 33 tiny islands. The young boy's life begins to look barren, and disconnected, and as motionless as this string of islands. His family becomes a batch of faraway characters he can hardly hear or see anymore. He's left with only a whisper of family history. Through 33 different gazes, the boy is searching for something to look back at him and engage; he is looking for a mirror of interest. It never happens. The penultimate image is of goats on a distant island: "They looked at us mildly confounded, and then, one by one, lost interest and returned to grazing."
In Hemon's most powerful story, "The Sorge Spy Ring," a young boy becomes obsessed with the famous Russian spy Richard Sorge. He wants to exchange the glorious stories of the spy, which feel like fiction to him, with the real life of his simple father. Periodically, a footnote appears encouraging the reader to drop down to the bottom of the page and read the real story of Richard Sorge. The footnotes proliferate wildly, attaching themselves everywhere, until even words like "mother" are annotated--with information about Sorge's mother. The notes between the fictional story of the boy and the non-fictional story of the spy mark the simplistic ties that the mind makes between others' stories and our own. The story has split in two, as if in conversation with itself, where half of the page is about Sorge and half is the tale of the boy. Then they start to act as one: The father is revealed as a spy. Or rather, he is abruptly arrested for being a spy; his true guilt or innocence is never established.
Growing up in Silicon Valley, in a part of town that you could perhaps call Little Yugoslavia, my neighbors all talked about Tito. The lady who sold See's Candies (her house was the first stop on Halloween) knew about Tito. The man down the street with the alcoholic nose, whose pores you could stick flowers in (it seemed), knew about Tito. But when I went to school, no one knew about Tito; Tito was a secret society, something I was given by my family, but a private imagination I didn't share with my friends.
I know a few things about Tito these days: how long he lived, when he was born, how he related to my family's decision to leave Yugoslavia before I had a chance to be born there, and his role (according to my family's fiction) in history. But the thing I think about, other than my grandmother telling me, "You must eat [insert vegetable here], because Tito would," is the fact that, for thousands of small children, this man was the greatest fiction they knew. But he wasn't fiction, was he? He was the Communist leader of Yugoslavia--wasn't he?
In fifth grade, we got to Yugoslavia in geography class, and it became known that my family was originally from Croatia. Reagan was President, and the lines were drawn: Down the halls, at recess, and whispered quietly or passed in a note, I would receive the word "commie." It was a history of mine, apparently, and because I was so confused, it felt like a history I had mistakenly lost.
History--our own--always feels like mistaken identity, ill-fitted clothes, or as if it happened (it must have happened) to someone else. Hidden in The Question of Bruno is the formula for the historic gaze. This gaze has to be a gaze toward oneself. The book's structure, holes, pictures, and meditations spark the footnoting instinct embedded in our imagination.