on not going home

OriginalJames Wood at The London Review of Books:

Sebald seems to know the difference between homesickness and homelessness. If there is anguish, there is also discretion: how could my loss adequately compare with yours? Where exile is often marked by the absolutism of the separation, secular homelessness is marked by a certain provisionality, a structure of departure and return that may not end. This is a powerful motif in the work of Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American writer who came to the States from Sarajevo, in 1992, only to discover that the siege of his hometown prohibited his return. Hemon stayed in America, learned how to write a brilliant, Nabokovian English (a feat in some sense greater than Nabokov’s because achieved at a steroidal pace), and published his first book, The Question of Bruno, in 2000 (dedicated to his wife, and to Sarajevo). Once the Bosnian war was over, Hemon could, presumably, have returned to his native city. What had not been a choice became one; he decided to make himself into an American writer.

Hemon’s work stages both his departure and return. In the novella Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls, Pronek arrives in America on a student exchange programme. Like Hemon, Pronek is from Sarajevo, is trapped by the war, and stays in America. He finds the United States a bewildering, alienating place, full of vulgarity and ignorance. When, near the end of the story, he returns to Sarajevo, the reader expects him to stay.

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