Cover image for The question of Bruno
The question of Bruno
Hemon, Aleksandar, 1964-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Nan A. Talese, [2000]

Physical Description:
230 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Islands -- The life and work of Alphonse Kauders -- The Sorge spy ring -- The accordion -- Exchange of pleasant words -- A coin -- Blind Josef Pronek & dead souls -- Imitation of life.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The Question of Brunois a novella and stories that are linked by characters, by locations, by interwoven substories, and by a literary voice so strong and sensitive that no matter how many guises it adopts, the stories cannot help but gather momentum and join together as a powerfully inventive whole. Set in Chicago and Sarajevo, it is a book about the trauma of war, about how an exile makes a new life in a new land.  But above all it is a work of impressive range, stunning accomplishment, and deep humor. In the novella "Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls," a young Sarajevan travels to the United States and decides to stay when he sees war break out at home on CNN--he goes on to experience a starkly contemporary version of  "coming to America." In "The Sorge Spy Ring," a young boy in communist Yugoslavia becomes convinced his father is a spy because of the strange toys he brings back from Moscow. Whether Hemon is writing of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or of a family trip to the beach, of an immigrant in the United States fired from a sandwich shop for an inability to distinguish between romaine and iceberg lettuce, or of the art of dodging sniper fire in a modern city under siege, he is both painfully funny and heartbreakingly sad. He writes with a wit, freshness, and true originality that prove him one of the most talented and skilled writers of his generation.

Author Notes

Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo. He lives in Chicago.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Unable to return home to Sarajevo after war broke out, Hemon stayed in Chicago, and the exile's wrenching experiences of learning a new language and culture infuse his edgy stories with a hallucinatory intensity. Hemon handles English as though each sentence were an incendiary device, beautifully made but volatile; and each tale, loaded with painful memories and scouring observations, is an ambush on an elusive enemy. Acutely attuned to the differences in perspective of the powerless and the powerful, Hemon writes about his Yugoslavian boyhood with all the intuition and confusion of childhood. One young narrator quietly absorbs his uncle's stories of torture in Stalin's camps, and another is obsessed with espionage and believes that Comrade Tito watches over him at all times. When Hemon's adult hero arrives in the U.S., he initially feels reduced to the status of a child, but as he gets acclimated, his take on this land of privilege and ignorance becomes positively caustic. Fascinated with the meeting of memory and language, adept at conjuring states of mind, and haunted by the violence wracking his homeland, Hemon is a stoic tragedian and a brilliant satirist. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Much like his protagonist in the novella Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls, the cornerstone of this collection of eight stories, Hemon came to the U.S. as a tourist, but had to stay as a refugee when his native Yugoslavia splintered apart. The expertly wrought stories he has written since movingly set his characters' personal memories side by side with history's accidents, the guilt of exile sharing space with the horrors of war, in both straightforward narratives and border-erasing experiments. The constant themes of war and exile mingle most affectingly in "A Coin," in which a Sarajevan's letters detailing the day-to-day terror of the Yugoslavian conflictDwhat it's like to run the gauntlet of Sniper's Alley or to be unable to bury your dead safelyDreach an uneasy migr in the U.S. who feels eerily isolated from current events and the tides of history. History likewise erupts in "Islands," when a favorite uncle interrupts a family vacation to relate his boyhood experiences in Stalin's labor camps to a narrator not much older than he was then. Elsewhere, history footnotes fiction, as in the experimental "The Sorge Spy Ring," which juxtaposes a wryly compiled case file of an actual Soviet agent with a boy's fantasy of his father's spying for the U.S.S.R. Although Hemon's satiric vision of the U.S. in "Blind Jozef" (a shorter version was published in the New Yorker) is less fresh than that of his Titoist childhood, its portrait of a Bosnian writer marking time in a grungy, postmodern Chicago is wryly uncompromising. Generously endowed with pathos, humor and irony, and written in an off-balance, intoxicating English, this collection announces a talent reminiscent of the young Josef Skvorecky. Agent, Nicole Aragi at Watkins/Loomis. Major ad/promo; author tour. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Hemon left his native Bosnia just before the outbreak of the civil war, settled in Chicago, and soon after began rigorously studying English. Unsurprisingly, his debut has been compared to the fiction of Conrad and Nabokov"icons who proved that the risky business of writing in an adopted language can produce admirable results. But Conrad!s crowded, premeditated sentences and Nabokov!s rhythmical and metaphorical prose are quite different from Hemon!s clearheaded fiction, which centers on the unique political tensions of Tito!s Yugoslavia. Hemon!s writing is sensible, with a hint of satire, and is heavily based on wistful description rather than farfetched dialog. Although dissimilar in format, the seven stories here echo the same nostalgic voice and the theme of dealing with the sudden eruption of childhood memories and the shifting identities of a weary immigrant. This kind of fiction doesn!t betray itself, but the author!s bold experimentation with form easily outsmarts the reader. The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders is actually highly suggestive of Donald Barthelme!s clever symbolism, while A Coin reveals that Hemon can tell a war story in the tradition of Tim O!Brien, combining magical realism with raw truth. This is the work of a rare talent who deserves our attention."Mirela Roncevic, Library Journal Mystery & suspense By Rex Klett Mitchell Community Coll., LRC,Statesville, NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 We got up at dawn, ignored the yolky sun, loaded our navy-blue Austin with suitcases and then drove straight to the coast, stopping only on the verge of Sarajevo, so I could pee. I sang communist songs the entire journey: songs about mournful mothers looking through graves for their dead sons; songs about the revolution, steaming and steely, like a locomotive; songs about striking miners burying their dead comrades. By the time we got to the coast, I had almost lost my voice. 2 We waited for the ship on a long stone pier, which burnt the soles of my feet, as soon as I took off my sandals. The air was sweltering, saturated with sea-ozone, exhaustion, and the smell of coconut sunscreen, coming from the German tourists, already red and shellacked, lined up for a photo at the end of the pier. We saw the thin stocking of smoke on the horizon-thread, then the ship itself, getting bigger, slightly slanted sideways, like a child's drawing. I had on a round straw hat with all the seven dwarves painted on it. It threw a short, dappled shadow over my face. I had to raise my head to look at the grown-ups. Otherwise, I would look at their gnarled knees, the spreading sweat stains on their shirts and sagging wrinkles of fat on their thighs. One of the Germans, an old, bony man, got down on his knees and puked over the pier edge. The vomit hit the surface and then dispersed in different directions, like children running away to hide from the seeker. Under the wave-throbbing, ochre and maroon, island of vomit, a school of aluminum fish gathered and nibbled it peevishly. 3 The ship was decrepit, with pealing steel stairs and thin leaves of rust that could cut your fingers on the handrails. The staircase wound upward like a twisted towel. "Welcome," said an unshaven man in a T-shirt picturing a boat with a smoke-snake, wobbling on the waves, and, above it, the sun with a U-smile and an umlaut of eyes. We sat on the upper deck and the ship leapt over humble waves, panting and belching. We passed a line of little islands, resembling car wrecks by the road, and I would ask my parents: "Is this Mljet?" and they would say: "No." From behind one of the petrified islands, shaven by a wildfire, a gust of waylaying wind attacked us, snatched the straw hat off my head and tossed it into the sea. I watched the hat teetering away, my hair pressed against my skull, like a helmet, and I understood that I would never, ever see it again. I wished to go back in time and hold on to my hat before the surreptitious whirlwind hit me in the face. The ship sped away from the hat and the hat was transformed into a beige stain on the snot-green sea. I began crying and sobbed myself to sleep. When I woke up the ship was docked and the island was Mljet. 4 Uncle Julius impressed a stern, moist kiss on my cheek--the corner of his mouth touched the corner of my mouth, leaving a dot of spit above my lip. But his lips were soft, like slugs, as if there was nothing behind to support them. As we walked away from the pier, he told us that he forgot his teeth at home, and then, so as to prove that he was telling us the truth, he grinned at me, showing me his pink gums with cinnabar scars. He reeked of pine cologne, but a whiff redolent of rot and decay escaped his insides and penetrated the fragrant cloud. I hid my face in my mother's skirt. I heard his snorting chuckle. "Can we please go back home!" I cried. 5 We walked up a dilapidated, sinuous road exuding heat. Uncle Julius's sandals clattered in a tranquilizing rhythm and I felt sleepy. There was a dense verdureless thicket alongside the road. Uncle Julius told us that there used to be so many poisonous snakes on Mljet that people used to walk in tall rubber boots all the time, even at home, and snakebites were as common as mosquito bites. Everybody used to know how to slice off the bitten piece of flesh in a split second, before the venom could spread. Snakes killed chickens and dogs. Once, he said, a snake was attracted by the scent of milk, so it curled up on a sleeping baby. And then someone heard of the mongoose, how it kills snakes with joy, and they sent a man to Africa and he brought a brood of mongooses and they let them loose on the island. There were so many snakes that it was like a paradise for them. You could walk for miles and hear nothing but the hissing of snakes and the shrieks of mongooses and the bustle and rustle in the thicket. But then the mongooses killed all the snakes and bred so much that the island became too small for them. Chickens started disappearing, cats also. There were rumors of rabid mongooses and some even talked about monster mongooses that were the result of paradisiacal inbreeding. Now they were trying to figure out how to get rid of mongooses. So that's how it is, he said, it's all one pest after another, like revolutions. Life is nothing if not a succession of evils, he said, and then stopped and took a pebble out of his left sandal. He showed the puny, gray pebble to us, as if holding irrefutable evidence that he was right. 6 He opened the gate and we walked through a small, orderly garden with stout tomato stalks like sentries alongside the path. His wife (he pointed her out to us) stood in the courtyard, her face like a loaf of bread with a small tubby potato in the middle, arms akimbo, her calves full of bruises and blood vessels on the verge of bursting, ankles swollen. She was barefoot, her big toes were crooked, taking a sudden turn, as if backing away in disgust from each other. She enveloped my head with her palms, twisted my head upward and then put her mouth over my mouth, leaving a thick layer of warm saliva, which I hastily wiped off with my shoulder. Aunt Lyudmila was her name. Excerpted from The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.