Telling the Truth

One of America's leading novelists explains why he believes that Aleksandar Hemon's writing helps keep literature honest

We are always living through a moment. At this moment, in American literature, the "real" is being celebrated. Novelists are asked to resemble long-form journalists; reporting on our culture is confused with engaging with it (which, itself, is confused with saying something new and true about being a human ); and writers are asked to show us "what it is like" to be American in 2010, to look at our country through a microscope and describe the details faithfully, in a way that makes us happily comfortably unsettled.

Aleksandar Hermon Getty Images
Getty Images

But there are bigger goals for the novel to aspire to, and those goals are timeless and without geography. The novel can disengage from the culture in such a way as to tap into something that is more essential and important than the circumstances of life. This kind of writing speaks to the moment in which it was written, but also to every moment and everyone. Kafka did it. Bruno Schulz and Isaac Babel, too. These writers happen to be the literary heroes of the American writer Aleksandar Hemon. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that his optical device is a telescope, and that he aims it at the dark sky. What cannot help but surprise, though, is just how much his writing enables us to see.

When most people think of Aleksandar Hemon, they think of his biography. The story of his life is so exceptional, it is tempting to mistake it for his story as a writer. Hemon was born in Sarajevo in 1964. He came to the United States in 1992, for what was supposed to be a brief visit as part of a program sponsored by the U.S. government. On the day he was scheduled to fly home, Sarajevo came under siege, and he found himself stranded in Chicago. The rest, as they say, is history. Although it never is.

Hemon made a new home in America and very quickly became fluent in English. (The word "fluent" feels laughably understated here. ) In a little more than 10 years, he wrote four widely celebrated books in English, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant (among other prizes ), and earned comparisons to everyone from Nabokov to the greats of European literature. In a world in which writers - especially American writers - not only write, but live, more and more domestically, Hemon was already his future biographer's dream.

Once upon a time there was a person whose life was so good there was no story to tell about it. In many ways it is a shame that Hemon's life is so interesting. One of those ways is that it draws attention away from his miraculous control of the English language (which would be no less miraculous had he been born in the U.S. ), his profound originality, and his unparalleled ambitiousness about what writing is capable of. His writing helps keep literature honest.

"The Question of Bruno" (2000 ), Hemon's first book, is not exactly a collection of stories, and not exactly a novel. The closest structural comparison might be Bruno Schulz's "The Street of Crocodiles." It's appearance marked the almost revelatory appearance of a great writer.

But so what? There are many great writers. "The Question of Bruno" introduced the world to a necessary writer, and those come along only a few times in a generation, if you're lucky. As Richard Eder wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "In retrospect, you begin to worry about what could so easily have been lost. What if Hemon had stayed in Sarajevo and suffered a momentary cramp - nonwriter's - crossing Sniper's Alley?" More than a great book would have been lost had Hemon not written "The Question of Bruno." We would have lost a way of looking.

The linked stories of "Bruno" are thematically (and sometimes narratively ) organized around Jozef Pronek, the hero of the collection's most ambitious and longest story. Hemon's second book, "Nowhere Man" (2002 ), takes Pronek as its hero. He is as memorable and sympathetic a character as has been offered in recent literature, but it's the language of the novel that is perhaps most affecting. A train is described as "much too salty." An armpit smells like "a wet bandage." Every page, every paragraph, offers a reason to look up from the paper, tilt one's head to an angle, and furrow one's brow.

Hemon's fiction has always been daring: "Nowhere Man" uses three or maybe four different narrators to rub in the silhouette of Jozef Pronek's complicated life. "The Lazarus Project," Hemon's most recent novel, which is now being published in Hebrew, is in some ways bolder still. It is both a historical fiction and an inquiry into the limits of historical fictionalizing.

"The Lazarus Project" begins with an almost Homeric opening: "The time and place are the only things I am certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago. Beyond that is the haze of history and pain, and now I plunge." And yet only sentences later he can plunge into stolen cars and the grit of urbanity. It is a highly postmodern novel, bouncing between times, voices and styles, and clearly self-referential. It seems like we are being given a story based on a historical truth, but as the book unfolds, we begin to wonder if it is in fact fiction being made real. One of the most unusual and engaging aspects of Hemon's writing is that he is at once grounded in earthly realities (the "onionesque" smell of armpits and so on ) and drawn toward playful, at times almost magical, fictionalizing.

The writing is never not honest. His characters are truthful even when they don't know truth, even when they actively evade it. Just as his language tells an honest story or paints an honest picture, even at its most surreal.

Though his work reflects true history and perhaps grows out of a place of personal experience, Hemon, when asked whether his work is autobiographical, said: "For some reason or another, I compulsively imagine scenarios alternative to what happens to me. To my mind my stories are not autobiographical; they are antibiographical, they are the antimatter to the matter of my life. They contain what did not happen to me." Yet they do, in a manner of speaking, contain no man's experience, which is also to say they contain every man's experience. Hemon's "genius" is in some ways bound to his definition of literature, which seeks to go beyond the insular personal experience (of memoir or autobiography ). He has said, "whatever stories you might have to tell about yourself, they have to be transformed into something that's meaningful beyond yourself."

In one "Lazarus" scene, Brik tiptoes into his Chicago kitchen to make coffee before his wife wakes up. "I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES." This is both an immigrant's experience, but also the experience of a man in crisis, a mirror held up to the melancholy, absurd, even funny, human condition. It is a true lie, and I'd take one of them to a thousand observations about Hondas and McDonald's.

Novels aspire to be truthful every bit as much as journalism does, but we have forgotten that they are different, equally valuable, kinds of truth. Hemon once said in an interview that, "The trick is to tell the truth about human life while lying." The truth is experiential, the lies are merely journalistic. Hemon himself describes it best: "Last night, on my way to give a reading, I hurt a ligament in my right hand while putting my shoe on. As I was driving this morning and talking on the phone with my sister in London, I lost my grip and sideswept my neighbor's car. Being honest, I went to their house to tell them what I had done. When I rang the bell nobody answered. I knocked and went in anyway, thinking they might be in the backyard. The house was empty and, as I walked through I noticed a vase in the shape of a monkey head. The light angle made it somehow seem that the monkey was winking at me, so I picked the head up to examine it, but then, dropped it, what with the weak hand ligament, and it shattered in a thousand pieces. For a moment I considered cleaning up or waiting for my neighbors to show up, but then decided to sneak out. Now I dread hearing the door bell. I could go on and turn this into a story. I did hurt my hand last night and I did get into the car this morning, but I did not cause any damage, nor did I trespass. I did not talk to my sister yesterday, but she does live in London. And I've never seen a monkey head like that. So, how much of this putative story is autobiographical?"

He is one of our greatest magicians.

Jonathan Safran Foer's most recent book is the nonfiction "Eating Animals," recently released in paperback by Back Bay Books, published earlier this year in Hebrew translation (Kinneret Zmora-Bitan ).