The Noble Truths of Suffering by Aleksandar Hemon
The uniformed jaran did not acknowledge that I was speaking Bosnian to him. Silently, he checked my invitation, then compared the picture in my American passport with my sullen local face and seemed to think it matched reasonably well. His head somehow resembled an armchair – with its deep-set forehead, armrest-like ears, and jutting jaw-seat – and I could not stop staring at it. He handed back my passport with the invitation tucked inside it and said, “Good evening to you.”
The American Ambassador’s house was a huge, ugly, new thing, built high up in the hills by a Bosnian tycoon who’d abruptly decided that he needed even more space and, without having spent a day in it, rented it to His American Excellency. There was still some work to be done: the narrow concrete path zigzagged meaninglessly through a veritable mud field; the bottom left corner of the facade was unpainted, and it looked like a recently scabbed-over wound. Farther up the hill, one could see yellow lace threading the fringes of the woods, marking a wilderness thick with mines.
Inside, however, all was asparkle. The walls were a dazzling white; the stairs squeaked with untroddenness. On the first landing, there was a stand with a large bronze eagle, its wings frozen mid-flap over a hapless, writhing snake. At the top of the stairs, in a spiffy suit a size too big, stood Jonah, the cultural attache. I had once misaddressed him as Johnny and had been pretending it was a joke ever since. “Johnnyboy,” I said. “How goes it?” He shook my hand wholeheartedly and claimed to be extremely happy to see me. Maybe he was – who am I to say?
I snatched a glass of beer and a flute of champagne from a tray-carrying mope whose Bosnianness was unquestionably indicated by a crest of hair looming over his forehead. I swallowed the beer and washed it down with champagne before entering
the already crowded mingle room. I tracked down another tray holder, who, despite his mustached leathery face, looked vaguely familiar, as though he were someone who had bullied me in high school. Then, assuming a corner position, cougarlike, I monitored the gathering. There were various Bosnian TV personalities, recognizable by their Italian spectacles and their telegenic abundance of frowns and smirks. The writers at the party could be identified by the incoherence bubbling up on their stained-tie surfaces. I spotted the Minister of Culture, who resembled a mangy panda bear. Each of his fingers was individually bandaged, and he held his flute like a votive candle. A throng of Armani-clad businessmen surrounded some pretty, young interpreters, while the large head of a famous retired basketball player hovered above them, like a full moon. I spotted the Ambassador – a stout, prim Republican, with a puckered-asshole mouth – talking to a man I assumed was Macalister.
The possible Macalister was wearing a purple velvet jacket over a Hawaiian shirt. His jeans were worn and bulging mid-leg, as though he spent his days kneeling. He wore Birkenstocks with white socks. Everything on him looked hand-me-down. He was in his fifties but had a head of Bakelite-black hair that seemed as if it had been mounted on his head decades ago and had not changed shape since. Without expressing any identifiable emotion, he was listening to the Ambassador, who was rocking back and forth on his heels, pursing his lips, and slowly expelling a thought.