THE BOOK OF MY LIVES
By Aleksandar Hemon.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 224pp. $25
The Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s first book of nonfiction, The Book of My Lives, is less a memoir than a series of interconnected essays, snapshots that rattle between past and present, exploring the discontinuities — and surprising connections — in a life disrupted by war and loss. Hemon was born in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1965, and the book opens a window into a period of history that for most American readers is half-remembered through the glimpses of news bulletins. Hemon is a smart, funny, and cynical eyewitness, who writes honestly about his near-suicidal dread of what war would do to his family, city, and country. At the same time, the book’s larger themes are universal: sibling rivalry, youthful rebellion, exile and immigration, marriage, divorce, and fatherhood.
The first story describes a four-year-old Hemon, bewildered by the birth of his sister at home, trying to peep through the keyhole of his bedroom to see what is going on, a metaphor he calls “somewhat Freudian” but that also aptly describes the limited vision and understanding of a child. Once his sister is installed in his life, he’s so disturbed by the sudden loss of his place as the center of his family’s universe that, “I tried to exterminate her as soon as an opportunity presented itself.” This sudden dark swerve — and little Sasha does try pressing his hands down on his baby sister’s throat when his mother is out of the room — is characteristic of Hemon’s unflinching writing. So too is the outcome: the sudden awareness of love for his sister that surges up too slowly to stop him from choking her, her rescue by her mother, and his recognition of what love and family means to a child: “Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself.”
The approaching cataclysm of the Bosnian war shadows even these stories from his secure and loving childhood under Communism in Sarajevo. He describes the tribalism of little boys, fiercely loyal to their own gangs, and his own dawning awareness of ethnic difference. At a party, Hemon notes that the birthday boy is wearing a colorful jumper, quite distinct from the drab clothes available at home, which he explains comes from Turkey. “So you are a Turk!” responds Hemon, to the shocked silence of everyone around him, and the tears of the little boy. His parents explain to him that Turk is derogatory slang for a Bosnian Muslim, and that Hemon had cheerfully and unwittingly marked out his friend’s ethnic difference. In another world such a story would be just a lesson in the power of language; in this world, it’s the first distant echo of gunfire.
As the relatively stable Communist regime of his childhood begins to be more immediately threatened by the rise of Serbian nationalism and the threat of invasion, Hemon responds by writing and storytelling, working with other young artists and journalists on a youth newspaper. The atmosphere that he describes in the essay “Life During Wartime” is one of desperation, as he and his friends try to counteract the coming of war with the only weapons they have: creative energy, black humor, irreverence, and “hedonistic oblivion.” It is not enough. At the end of the summer of 1991, “The war had arrived, and we were all waiting to see who would live, who would kill, and who would die.”
At his lowest point, staying in a wintry limbo in his family’s mountain cabin with only his dog for company, Hemon receives a phone call to tell him he’s been awarded a one-month writing fellowship in Chicago. While he’s there, the war erupts in earnest, and he’s granted refugee status. Hemon has lived in Chicago ever since, and writes in English, in a precise, direct style full of tiny shocks, unexpected phrases, incongruous jokes, and linguistic surprises that betray the careful craft behind the conversational tone.
Throughout these stories, the writer’s love of cities shines through. Both Sarajevo and Chicago are places he comes to know deeply and intimately, and despite their differences, his love for the first informs his love for the latter. Hemon is a fundamentally urban writer, and writes passionately about the experience of exploring and coming of age in the city, unintimidated by the risk of violence or the confrontation with strangers. He also writes also about people — and dogs — with unbounded curiosity and thoughtful sympathy. This curiosity even extends to the portrait of his literature professor Nikola Koljević, a cultured, Shakespeare-loving mentor and poet who became, for a while, the right-hand man and apologist for Radovan Karadžić, the genocidal Bosnian Serb leader. Rage is always tempered by this urge to understand.
As a writer operating in a second language, Hemon’s turns of phrase are often arrestingly strange, but beautiful. The most devastating story is the final one, which describes the death of his baby daughter Isabel from a vanishingly rare brain tumor. The irony of such a calamity coming so long after Hemon has survived a war and escaped the siege of Sarajevo is not lost on this quietly brilliant writer. The story is also a profound meditation on the limitations of language and imagination — can a parent ever truly imagine the death of his child? — and on love, grief and survival.