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Feminism revisited in Aleksandar Hemon’s short stories.
By Chrissy Cooper
Though we’ve made great strides toward women’s rights, in America our greatest complaint is the unequal distribution of jobs (there are far more female kindergarten teachers than female bricklayers, for example), throughout the world women are denied education and the vote, forced to marry, and trafficked into sex slavery. Too wrapped up in our own lives, we forget that the scales continue to dip unevenly. Similarly, the protagonists in Aleksandar Hemon’s short stories, The Deep Sleep and Love and Obstacles, ignore the unfair treatment of the women in their lives because it does not directly affect them. Hemon wields his exceptional prose to point out women’s roles in Southeastern Europe with subtlety.
The Deep Sleep follows the immigrant, Pronek, on a tour through the North side of Chicago as he attempts to get a position as a private detective while haunted by the memory of the war he left in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As Pronek’s search for employment ensues, he has an interview with the “operative” (what you hear and see of his job is sketchy, and his outward description of it is even sketchier) Taylor Owen, a surly man whose hair is as thin as his empathy. Surprisingly, Owen gives Pronek the chance to help him serve court papers to a man named Brdjanin.
Also following a traveler in a new place, Love and Obstacles is a young poet’s first adventure from home on a mission to buy a freezer for his family, have an existential awakening, and maybe get a little female attention for the first time. He encounters an ornery hotel man named Franc, and an American couple staying in the hotel, the young wife grasping his attention.
While these stories have wildly different protagonists, they are joined by Hemon’s astounding prose. Even his description of something as simple as turning on a gas stovetop to boil some tea [“there was a din of drawers and gas hissing, ending with an airy boom”] excites the senses and brightens memories of similar things. It’s a sound I’ve heard every day in my life and am not able to describe as succinctly and effectively. Even now, I’m hearing the rattle of spoons and breathing the faint smell of gas from thousands of past cups of tea.
Hemon uses this skill of robust description to put the characters in awful places, covering the setting in a thin layer of grime. He constructs a description bleak and desperate like Brdjanin’s kitchen that “reeked of coffee and smoke, stale sweat and Vegeta, a coat of torturous, sleepless nights over everything.” Hemon is specific and deliberate in his details, weaving a background as important as the ideas in the spotlight. He often places his female characters in this background, where they interact with the protagonists in concerning ways. However, Hemon’s specific and deliberate prose reveals careful planning.
Interestingly enough, though the protagonists are on opposite levels of maturity and confront contrasting problems, in the face of the depressing settings molded by Hemon, both Pronek from The Deep Sleep and the unnamed boy from Love and Obstacles dreamily long for the arms of women who are objectified in their ideation by these protagonists. They often don’t care to find out names or anything about the women’s personalities. The men make up an identity that is wholly fabricated based on empirical data; their smell, their bodies, their smiles. In The Deep Sleep, Pronek fills an elevator, empty except for the remaining scent of perfume, with a sultry dream woman, smoothly requiring a light for her imaginary cigarette. Similarly, in Love and Obstacles, as the boy waited in line behind the American couple, he dreamt of a conversation that he would have with the woman (“while her unseemly husband was safely locked up somewhere else”) that would render them unable to “make it to the bed before, etc.” Interested only in her physical worth, he tells us: “her name, I decided, was Elizabeth.”
These portrayals of females are outwardly anti-feminist. Throughout Hemon’s two short stories, women are always accompanied and supported by men, who have stronger positions of power in communication with other characters. The woman with Brdjanin never says a word to Pronek, but stays in the background and makes the men tea after being ordered to without hesitation. The boy follows a couple of pretty girls through a park, who, though wholly capable of telling him to scamper off on their own, find a man to confront him instead. These women are thus reliant on their interactions with men to exist, but perhaps, just as his descriptive prose is full of intent, Hemon makes this move with purpose.
Hemon was born in Sarajevo and lived there until 1992, when at 28 he was stranded in the US by the outbreak of the Bosnian War. Though the war ended in 1995, citizens are still impacted today by the numerous war crimes committed during this time including genocide, ethnic cleansing, torture, and mass rape. A special report from the Guardian shows that Bosnian Muslim women and girls as young as 12 were enslaved and systematically raped. Three leaders of this monstrosity were charged with crimes against humanity, and though the leaders received a total of 60 years in jail, victims were left unsatisfied. They believe the pain caused by the men involved in the crimes should cost much more.
Hemon’s portrayal of women in these stories could be a comment on officials’ attempts to brush away these horrors and move on. Unfortunately, they were successful because the history is largely ignored and forgotten. The tragedies were never mentioned during high school history classes. No one I’ve questioned in my research knows anything about it. However, the effects are outlasting and still affecting the unsatisfied victims. Hemon’s portrayal of women mirrors the devastating truth. Each female character in Love and Obstacles or The Deep Sleep is brushed aside and thought of only for sexual pleasure. There are often marks on their bodies, from Brdjanin’s girlfriend who has a “swollen face and a faint bruise on her cheek, like misapplied makeup” to a woman running for the train “a gash” in her leg. These descriptions taint the air with abuse and unfairness that the main characters ignore, just as the abuse of the Bosnian Muslim women was slighted by the courts.
The unnamed protagonist of Love and Obstacles could stand for the effect that decisions made by a country’s officials have on the future generations. The boy’s objectification of women is at a subconscious level. He’s not deliberately (or literally) harming women. But he is following them home and continuing to pursue them after noticing they hurry to get away from him. It’s not until they find a man to chase him away, that he realizes what he is doing is not okay.
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I admit I knew nothing about the Bosnian war before reading either of Hemon’s short stories, and, admittedly, I still do not know much. However, the protagonists don’t get away with daydreaming for long. The unnamed boy rides the train back home with fresh bruises caused by his petty longings. As Pronek’s memories of the war seep back into his awareness, he is left breathing in the noxious truth with cigarette smoke. Whether they are the better for these realizations is up to interpretation.
Nevertheless, both protagonists are more in tune with the shortcomings of reality. Left more alone by the absence of their daydreams, they realize they are up for a fight ahead. Similarly, female readers are left wondering if society has made significant strides toward gender equality, especially once realizing the Bosnian War’s dirty laundry could be crammed in a closet and ignored. Hemon’s work cracks the door and peeks in on the past’s oppression of women and its effect on today draped on hangers and hooks. Whatever Hemon’s opinion on the matter, he refreshes the public’s consciousness on these issues and allows necessary reevaluation of them with The Deep Sleep and Love and Obstacles.