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Book review

‘The Book of My Lives’ by Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon

Velibor Bozovic

Aleksandar Hemon

“I write fiction because I cannot not do it, but I have to be pressed into writing nonfiction,” Aleksandar Hemon announces at the start of this collection of autobiographical pieces published in magazines over the past decade.

True, none comes close to those in the magnificent “The Question of Bruno” that launched him; and some, though well written, have an indolent quality: pressed, indeed, more than expressed. Yet even here a passage rises and bites; Hemon the exiled Bosnian is never far from gravity, or should we say anti-gravity: It lifts him.

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And so, recalling his Sarajevo childhood meals and detailing the family preparation of borscht, he adds that when alone in Chicago he never made it. “[T]here is nothing as pathetic as solitary borscht”; its crucial ingredient “is a large, hungry family.” We have gone from foodie to exile.

Revisiting Sarajevo after the war he hears details of the siege from an aunt who recalls the Serb sniper assigned to target her apartment. Determinedly blithe, she was sure he purposely began by shooting high to warn her away from the windows.

He gives a lively but otherwise unremarkable account of the pre-war artistic set he belonged to; they would stage subversive parties, at one of which everyone dressed in German uniforms. A national scandal ensued: protest letters, party denunciations, police investigations. Was fascism corrupting the young? In Yugoslavia at that time, dada could be deadly. And deadliness lurked: Years later a young woman who took part joined an extremist Serb gang.

There has been any amount written about Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb architect of the massacres of Bosnian Muslims, but Hemon provides startling insight into the lofty horror of a rancid mind. He recalls the literary epic that undoubtedly inspired him. Read by all Serbian children, it tells of Bishop Vladika Danilo, who ordered the extermination of Montenegro’s Muslims. “Let there be what cannot be . . . On the grave flowers will grow/ For a distant future generation.”

Later young Hemon was arts editor for a youth-run magazine. It was all fun; the staff tried to ignore the Serb-Croat war taking place to the north — “hysterical oblivion” he calls it — until one of the reporters sent to cover the fighting was arrested and tortured.

The most extraordinary piece about Sarajevo tells of Hemon’s brilliant literature professor, Nikola Koljevic. Impassioned of the New Criticism, he introduced the students to poetry and novels, getting them to deeply mine the texts themselves, as well as teaching them to write essays.

And then Koljevic began to appear with Karadzic, standing beside him in his rants. “Stay out of this. Stick to literature,” he hissed when Hemon approached him. Hemon feverishly went back to the lectures: Did they hint of all this? So literature wasn’t life? And he reacted. “I unread books and poems I used to like . . . I’d been mired in close reading, impressionable and unaware that my favorite teacher was plotting a vast crime.”

A number of pieces tell of his life in Chicago where he moved after finding himself out of Sarajevo on a US government grant when the siege began. He compares the two cities: the intimacy of Sarajevo where everyone knew you and “the borders between interiority and exteriority were practically nonexistent.” And Chicago, “built not for people to come together but for them to be safely apart.” Until he gradually came to know the place, “I wanted from Chicago what I’d got from Sarajevo: a geography of the soul.”

The getting-to-know occupies many of the pieces: jobs, living in a shabby neighborhood, walking and exploring, marrying twice, playing chess and pickup soccer, unable to write and then writing as a way to place his pains and uncertainties in a separate world.

These are OK but rather flat. An exception is his meeting with an old Italian art restorer furious about the cleaning of the Vatican’s “Last Judgment’’; patina, he insists, is the essence of an old painting. And there is a painfully, expertly detailed account of the cancer death of Hemon’s baby; the most moving part tells of his 3-year-old daughter’s invention of an imaginary character to make up for her parents’ tortured silences.

One piece shines. At his chess club he meets an old Assyrian who tells him of a grievously troubled life: born in Belgrade, emigrating to Iraq, forced to flee, settling in Iran, having his son killed by the Revolutionary Guard: “here was a man whose life contained more suffering than I could begin to imagine” And in a café they sit next to a table of chattering college students, the chatter infested with “like, like.” The Assyrian demands they shut up. And Hemon adds a golden comment.

“[I]t was wrong to talk about nothing when there was a perpetual shortage of words for all the horrible things that happened in the world. It was better to be silent than to say what didn’t matter. One had to protect from the onslaught of wasted words the silent place deep inside oneself, where all the pieces could be arranged in a logical manner.” As for the students: “Inoculated against speechlessness, they had no access to the unspeakable.”

Has such an acute indictment of a contemporary generation ever been made?

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.
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