Book Review: The Book of my Lives
In The Book of My Lives, Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon finds himself in the streets of Sarajevo and Chicago
When Serb forces attacked Sarajevo in 1992, the young Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon was visiting Chicago. He searched for familiar faces in television reports about the siege of his native city, wracked by worry and guilt for not being there. Yet on the day he was supposed to fly home, Hemon did not go back. "The rest," he writes in his new collection of autobiographical essays, The Book of My Lives, "is the rest of my life."
One of the principal pleasures of reading The Book of My Lives is Hemon’s agile, inventive prose. He is often compared to the Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad, who mastered English as an adult and wrote brilliantly in his adopted tongue. Since Hemon began writing in English in 1995, he has published two highly-acclaimed story collections and two novels, much of them autobiographical, with displacement and the search for identity as frequent themes. In 2004, Hemon was given a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship or "genius grant."
"I write fiction because I cannot not do it," Hemon admits, "but I have to be pressed into writing nonfiction." The truth of this statement is apparent in The Book of My Lives. Spanning Hemon’s childhood and youth in Sarajevo and his exile in Chicago, where he has now spent almost half his life, the collection is uneven. Unlike his fiction, few of the essays are transcendent. Still, there are gems, above all the collection’s searing final piece about the death of his infant daughter, which lingers in the mind long afterward.
A ‘pretentious’ bohemian youth
Hemon writes with wry wit and a jaundiced, yet sympathetic eye, particularly toward his younger self. "Like many young people raised in the comforts of socialism," he recalls, "I was a nihilist and living with my parents."
He perfectly captures the pretentiousness of Sarajevo’s bohemian scene of his youth – while noting how much he and his friends claimed to hate pretension. Keen to relieve their boredom, they sought to shock and provoke.
One particularly obtuse episode of youthful idiocy escalated into a national scandal when Hemon’s artsy friend Isidora decided to turn her 20th birthday party into a performance piece by staging a Nazi-themed reception. Young men turned up in black shirts and tall boots, women wore evening gowns. Canapés decorated with swastikas were served. A volume of Nietzsche was burned. There was idle talk of revolution.
Unsurprisingly, the partygoers were summoned to the state security police. Hemon was grilled about the rise of fascism among Yugoslavia’s youth, which at the time (1986) seemed an outlandish prospect. After several hours they were sent home, "our wrists swollen from slapping."
But rumours were flying. Concerned citizens wrote outraged letters to newspapers, which eventually named the culprits. Hemon and his friends were ostracised, Isidora and her family fled to Belgrade. "The whole thing felt to me like reading a novel in which one of the characters – a feckless nihilistic prick – had my name," Hemon recalls. "What if... I was the only one not seeing what the world was really like?" As a coda, he reports that a few years later, Isidora was celebrating Serbian fascism and dating a paramilitary leader later accused of war crimes.
When Serbia went to war with Croatia in 1991, Hemon was cultural editor of a Bosnian youth magazine. He wrote a column called Sarajevo Republika, in which he sought "to assert Sarajevo’s uniqueness, the inherent sovereignty of its spirit." He and his friends tried to ignore the ominous signs that Bosnia would be the next target: "The more we knew about it, the less we wanted to know." They sought refuge in hedonism.
Hemon writes of the personal betrayal he felt when a professor who "introduc[ed] me to the world that could be conquered by reading" turned out to be a senior official of Radovan Karadžić’s rabidly nationalist Serbian Democratic Party. In disgust, Hemon "unread" his favorite books to purge his professor’s influence. "I excised and exterminated that precious, youthful part of me that had believed you could retreat from history and hide from evil in the comforts of art."
Looking back, Hemon thinks of his younger self "as one of Baudelaire’s flaneurs, someone who wanted to be everywhere and nowhere in particular, for whom wandering in the city was the main means of communicating with it." And that was what he did in Chicago too, as he grappled with the decision of whether to return to Sarajevo. "A tormented flaneur, I kept walking, my Achilles tendons sore, my head in the clouds of fear and longing for Sarajevo, until I finally reconciled myself to the idea of staying."
Chicago: a crash course on race
In time, Hemon built a new life for himself, gradually finding places he could call his own and internalising Chicago as he had Sarajevo. Canvassing the city’s neighborhoods for Greenpeace provided a crash course on class and race in America. Pickup soccer games with other immigrants reconnected him to the larger world. The discipline of chess gave him a path to understanding what was too terrible to articulate. Then chess was supplanted by writing: Hemon rediscovered his voice in a new language.
In the book’s devastating final essay, Hemon recounts in harrowing detail the death of his infant daughter, Isabel, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. For Hemon and his wife, the world shrank to a hospital room and time contracted. The future was frightening and uncertain. Hemon could not contemplate either Isabel’s death or her survival.
His three-year-old daughter, Ella, found another way to cope: she invented an imaginary brother and recounted his adventures to her parents. "I recognised in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer," Hemon says. "We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves."
In The Book of My Lives, Hemon, the accidental exile, explores his own life just as he once explored the streets of Sarajevo and Chicago, in search of connections and understanding – in search, in short, of a "geography of the soul."
The Book of My Lives
by Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (2013)