Monday, November 21, 2005

Aleksandar Hemon's "Love and Obstacles"

"Love and Obstacles," in this week's New Yorker, is another story with a built-in narrative arc: a boy is sent on a mission to a distant city to buy a freezer for his family. When the freezer is acquired, the story is complete, except for the requisite denouement. Once we know his mission, we read on to see it achieved. Profluence is created by this simple task.

The freezer is obtained with minimal problems. It is not the freezer that is important; the boy is not confronted with seemingly insurmountable problems in buying the freezer; he need not prove his mettle or overcome great odds, except that he has to tell a white lie to explain a slight shortage in payment. The story lies in the boy's journey, his confrontations (or interactions) with a drunk, someone who is either a pimp or a policeman, a tourist couple, and Franc, the "cantankerous" clerk at the Hotel Evropa. The boy is seeking love, to be euphemistic, but he seeks in vain. The universal tale of unrequited teen lust.

The themes are familiar, but comfortable as old shoes. How many meaningful themes are there, anyway?

Hemon begins the story by presenting us with a vulnerable character in a threatening situation. The protagonist is seventeen; he is on a train to a strange city; he is carrying a large amount of cash (enough to buy a freezer); and he shares the train with two criminals who discuss their past lives in prison. They harass him, but just enough to make him (and the reader) uneasy and, well, threatened. But eventually they leave him alone and disappear from the story. What purpose do they serve? Oh, one asks an unanswered riddle which is echoed later in the story, but the echo is obligatory, inserted to check off the square that says nothing can appear in a story only once. Their real purpose is simply to win our sympathy for the protagonist, to make us fear for him. He need not outsmart the criminals or beat them into submission or anything else comic-bookish. They have served their purpose, and now they can go.