Aleksandar Hemon: ‘It’s the end of America. They just don’t know it yet’

Interview: The Bosnian-American writer’s new novel is a comedy with tragedy at its heart: the main characters have all been destroyed by state-sponsored conflicts

It's not every day you read a novel that moves effortlessly between references to the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, eruptions of the crazed undead, a po-faced TV image of George Bush, sidewinding literary references – "Did the Wife of Bath drink soy milk chai lattes?" – and a joke that begins: "John Wayne goes to Sarajevo . . ."

The Making of Zombie Wars, the new novel from the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon, doesn't so much move as whizz the reader from the heights of creative whimsy to the depths of human tragedy – and back again – with barely time to draw breath.

The story begins as Hemon's central character, Joshua Levin, is attending a screenwriting workshop, where his best effort at a screenplay is the eponymous Zombie Wars. The text of this fledgling movie (in which people who irritate Joshua tend to get eaten by zombies) is woven through the novel, as are the high-concept film pitches that Josh obsessively notes down in his laptop, like attacks of narrative hiccups.

Before he began to write the book, Hemon also signed up for a screenwriting workshop – not so much for research purposes, he explains, more as a deliberate literary strategy. “When you’re writing scripts you rush through the action, and you do not pay much attention to language,” he says. “A script is about what you can see and report. I tend to get entangled in language when I write; this was to force me into generating plot.”

Although he has been a movie-lover since his teenage years, when he used to memorise lists of credits in the hope of one day becoming a film critic, the workshop served to reinforce Hemon’s conviction that his heart is with the written word. “I love language. To me, screenwriting is an interesting activity, but I like to think in language. I like to hear things. I like to shape a sentence in a way that is not merely invoking an image.”

Propositioned by a student

There are several striking points of similarity between Hemon and his central character. Joshua teaches English as a second language; so did Hemon. Joshua is propositioned by one of his students; so was Hemon. Unlike Joshua, however, Hemon did not succumb to temptation.

“She was married; she had a daughter. I was in a relationship; I was her teacher,” he says. “I strive to be a decent person. Sadly. So I did not do it.”

But he did, occasionally, wonder what it might have been like to get involved with this attractive stranger. “This is how I often write my stuff, by imagining alternative paths from the situations in which I find myself. I can see why people think it’s autobiographical, but to me it’s not, because the characters have made the choices that I have not made.”

Joshua’s Jewishness is another point of departure. Hemon likes to say that his Bosnian roots are “complicated”, but they definitely aren’t Jewish. “I discovered early on that I wanted to set the book at the time of the Iraq invasion, the beginning of which exactly coincided with Passover in 2003. I also knew that it would end with a Seder – so it would run over the two weeks of Passover. So then, if Joshua was Jewish, that would work.

“At the same time I wanted Joshua’s story to refer to Rothian narratives of male entitlement – to be in that tradition, while being implicitly critical.”

And Spinoza? “Ah,” Hemon says. “I wanted him to be interested in Spinoza at the beginning of the book. But then Spinoza’s rationality and reason entirely fades, and Joshua starts quoting from the Haggadah and the Bible, invoking the Lord to help him, because reason has failed entirely.

“Joshua’s trajectory away from reason toward belief is also the trajectory of American patriotism, or American thought, at the beginning of this millennium,” he adds. Does this account for the leitmotif of George Bush’s lugubrious face turning up on television screens, making increasingly ludicrous pronouncements about the Iraq war?

“Well, now, sadly, he looks an intelligent man compared to this selection of bozos,” Hemon says with a rueful grimace. The current crop of politicians are, he says, generating a sense that the US is under siege by foreigners, and offering no vision, “other than paranoia”, about what should be happening.

“One of the things that interested me in addressing this book is the belief – which is common in America – that feelings are more authentic than rationality. There’s the belief that too much intelligence is not good for you; too much thinking is not good for you. That, to me, is deplorable and the kind of thing that leads to war – ‘Our guts told us to attack Iraq’ – and it led to the fiasco that we saw.”

As a young Bosnian journalist, Hemon was on an information tour to the US in January 1992 when war engulfed Sarajevo, leaving him stranded in Chicago. He watched as his native city was destroyed, and the experience rendered him mute – creatively, if not literally – for many years. “For about the first three years in the United States I couldn’t write in Bosnian and I couldn’t write in English. I felt cut off from my mother tongue because the people who spoke it were under siege and being killed, and I had no access to them.”

It renders his literary achievement – first a short story collection, The Question of Bruno, then a book of linked stories, Nowhere Man, followed by a novel, The Lazarus Project and a memoir, The Book of My Lives – all the more impressive. That's without even mentioning the critics who have compared Hemon to Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, or the accolades that have come his way – among them a Guggenheim fellowship, a MacArthur "genius grant" and a Pen/WG Sebald award.

Tragedy at its heart

Like all the best comic novels, The Making of Zombie Wars has a tragedy at its heart. The lives of the book's main characters have all been destroyed by violent, state-sponsored conflicts of one sort or another. Ana and Esko have fled from the war in Bosnia. Josh's grandparents are Holocaust survivors. His girlfriend Kimiko's Japanese grandparents were interned in camps in the US; his landlord, Stagger, has been through Desert Storm, and is as mad as a box of frogs as a result.

“You cannot be untouched by war,” Hemon says. “The great delusion is that we fight wars ‘over there’. We fight it there so it doesn’t come here. I wanted to address the segregation of war and life. Joshua is imagining a zombie war while there’s an actual war unfolding; the zombie war is more real to him than Iraq.”

One of the aspects of privilege available to many of us in the West, he says, gesturing to our surroundings in a salubrious Dublin hotel, is that everything nasty happens far away, whether geographically or in terms of temporality.

“But then the refugees start swimming across the sea, and so then what do you do now?”

As we’re both reduced to silence by the reference to the migrant crisis, he adds – with a grimace – that although his hordes of invading zombies invoke a “barbarians at the gates” image, he did not for a moment envision what is currently taking place in Europe. But has he seen changes in American culture since he arrived in the US two decades ago?

Has he ever. “The Bush years?” he begins. “The damage is just immeasurable. The destruction is enormous. And what is even more damaging is the inability to address that in its fundamentals. This perpetuation of denial of the facts, including the fact that the United States is no longer a superpower. It has failed miserably. Part of the point of the Iraq war was to assert American power and its right and ability to fix things around the world, and they’ve f***ed it up beyond any measure. Plus, no one has paid any price for that. None. Never mind jail and torture and extraordinary rendition and all that: just, ‘Do you know what you’ve done, Mr Rumsfeld?’ None whatsoever.”

Superheroes

“In the meantime, there’s a plague of movies about superheroes. It’s no longer enough to have one superhero per movie – the overcompensation is so blatant. There are two or four or seven superheroes per f***king movie because they cannot face the fact that the whole project has failed.

“It’s the end of America. They just don’t know it yet.” Hemon pauses, grins, looks sheepishly over the top of his glasses. “They’ll probably revoke my passport after this,” he says. Well, they might. But if they do, they’re going to lose one heck of a writer.

  • The Making of Zombie Wars is published by Picador