Music and Spies

Music and Spies

The tale of a bored teenager who finds music and a possible spy

Whisky & Culture | 25 Oct 2013 | Issue 115 | By Jefferson Chase

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For the next couple of issues, I thought it might be interesting to look at writers with ties to three or more countries. And as backgrounds go Aleksander Hemon's is a pretty good one. The son of a Yougoslav diplomat who spent time in Africa, he was stranded in Chicago by the Balkan War in 1992, where he began writing fiction in English.

Hemon's 2008 short-story collection Love and Obstacles starts with a bang. The opener "Stairway to Heaven" has the teenaged protagonist spending a boring summer in Kinshasa with his diplomat father. Boring, that is, until he starts hanging out with his upstairs neighbor, an American named Spinelli who's a huge music fan and who may or may not work for the CIA: Most of all I enjoyed his narratives: he delivered them slouching back on the sofa, blowing cigarette smoke toward the fast-spinning ceiling fan, sipping J&B, interrupting his delivery for a solo in a Led Zeppelin song. There might be a taint of death, a flavor of mortality, in lies, but Spinelli's were fun to listen to.

The setting may be exotic, but who can't relate to the thrill of a teenager chilling with an adult and rocking out to Zep?

Spinelli introduces the narrator to his beautiful and mysterious girlfriend, and for a few weeks the three are inseparable. During that time, our youthful hero learns how to party - which, as we all know, can be a school of hard knocks. One evening he gets so stoned that his father has to haul him back home.

Walking downstairs was much like crossing an underwater bridge: an invisible stream pressing against my knees, I could not feel the solid concrete under my feet. Tata practically carried me, his hand grasped my flesh urgently, sternly. He talked to me, but I could only hear the tone of his voice: it was angry and quivering.

As a result, the narrator is grounded for the rest of his time in Zaire.

He does see Spinelli again, though, while on a safari. Why is the maybe-CIA man there, our hero wants to know: "For a vacation," he said. "And while I am here, I might as well discuss an important matter with your father." "Like what?" "You maybe. Or maybe not. We'll burn that bridge when we get to it." The story takers an eerie turn from here and the final climax is as plausible as it is unforeseeable.

It's a tribute to Hemon's talent that you rarely notice that English is not his native language. Like the marvelously malevolent Spinelli, when he messes up an idiom it's to good effect. So hats off to this extraordinarily gifted Bosnian-American. Or perhaps better said: party on!
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