The New Yorker Reader: “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” by Aleksandar Hemon

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09/18/2008 3:00 PM |


The funniest New Yorker story in a while assumes an ironic distance from Americans who mistake the deprivations, banalities and gracelessness of the developing world for poignant, primitive poetry; and citizens of the developing world who mistake American pretensions for worldliness.

The American Pulitzer Prize-winner, Macalister, is seen by us as kind of a phony, in his white tube socks, self-described “Buddhistish” spirituality (not faith), and parodically macho-damaged prose, down to his sub-Cormac McCarthy word-of-the-day vocabulary. The best word is “chitin,” when “dykes” or something like that would have done fine — but the drunk, effusive Bosnian narrator seizes on that word and reuses it throughout the piece, adopting the ostentatious indicators of this American’s genius.

The narrator, meanwhile, is drunk and kind of abject in his desire for approval, and his parents seem embarrassing in their old-country bluntness (they don’t really know what “vegetarian” means). Macalister, though, will later reuse his meeting with them in one of his books (to the great happiness of the narrator), with a much sadder spin, as if the nakedness of their need is tragic rather than, as we’ve seen, sort of comic.

But then again, maybe it sort of is tragic. What the story does, aside from unspool a great comedy of manners with vibrant descriptive language (“Macalister grappled with his boots, bending his ankles to the point of fracture” is spot-on; Hemon’s facility with description affirms Macalister’s prose as parody), is make an essentially subjectivist argument for the nature of perception and truth, especially literary truth. This ridiculous American writer, who sees no irony in flagellating himself for his own “vainglorious” tendencies, does not seem ridiculous to the aspiring Bosnian writer who narrates the story; and it is only when we see the writer from outside himself that we recognize the pathos of his slapstick existence. (Even if the pathos is perhaps a function of Macalister’s pretentiousness.) It’s essentially a matter of the angle of approach.

There is also a really tantalizing moment in the last passage, a section of prose from Macalister’s book, which seems to lift a phrase of the narrator’s — except that the phrase is, as the narrator relates it to us, out of his inner monologue. I’m not sure what Hemon wants us to make of this — the narrator said it out loud without meaning to and is grateful for Macalister’s theft; in spite of everything the narrator and Macalister do perceive some things the same way; the narrator is telling the story after reading the book, and unconsciously stole the phrase a la “chitin”; or what. I guess I think we’re not supposed to know — that Hemon wants us to come away from the story questioning the nature of the claims we make on the world with our descriptions of it.