fb-pixel Skip to main content

Aleksandar Hemon’s ‘The World and All That It Holds’ conscripts readers into the war torn life and love of a queer Jewish apothecary turned soldier and survivor

Enrique Moreiro for The Boston Globe

In the weeks since I finished Aleksandar Hemon’s unlike-any-novel-I’ve-read-before “The World and All That It Holds,” I have puzzled over how vividly it remains with me — I keep reentering this world, its sensory intensity more palpable than many memories of my own life. The novel’s ability to perpetuate itself seems to me to come both from the fantastic virtuosity of the writing and from the wonderfully realized idea of the book, which is to have the reader live the war-torn life — a life of terrible, relentless misfortune, exquisite beauty, polyglot complexity, and bone-grinding endurance — that is the life of Rafael Pinto.


A life may be memorable in moments. The reader who makes a life with and as Rafael Pinto can feel the arriving significance, the future memorability, of the scenes into which we enter. On one momentous day in Sarajevo, there is to be a parade for the Archduke Ferdinand; Rafael Pinto, a dreamy queer Jewish apothecary with a fondness for poetry, has the gauzy sunlit pleasure of taking laudanum and lavender; “God wrapped Himself in white garments, and the radiance of His majesty illuminated the world, and right here on the floor of the Apotheke Pinto we can now behold a little patch of one of those very garments.” We survey our lovely Apotheke, flirt with the Austro-Hungarian Rittmeister who enters the shop with a headache. And, because it is the day of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, and we chase after the attractive Rittmeister, we have the assassination, too.

We suspect we will remember everything breaking apart, but we don’t know what it means, and our narrator, not Pinto but some later, sympathetic inquirer — what a narrative voice Hemon has found — this narrator knows our situation and joins us in an aside: “(I can confirm, from personal experience, that we are always late to the history in which we live).” No glory here from proximity to a “central” historical event. Pinto’s presence at the assassination that sets off the catastrophic landslide of World War I is more like the situation of the children in Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”: The force of formative events catapults him away from the world as it was and into another life.


Rafael Pinto goes to war, falls in love with Osman, a Muslim Bosnian, who “never used up the mirth innate in his oval face,” and who has “in every finger another talent”: storytelling, closing the hole in a boot, making Pinto feel that there is a purpose to his life. They are clandestine lovers, their regiment is moved to Galicia, they are inundated by the Battle of Brusilov, hide under corpses, once again survive.

The method of this far-flung book is to take up Pinto’s life in a new geographic location with each of its five sections — the time in Sarajevo and Galicia is followed by a section near Tashkent, another crossing the Taklamakan desert, another in Shanghai. These sections are marked with illustrating maps so that a reader may hold the traversals in mind. Each chapter then bears down into a certain year and scene (Ferghana Valley, 1921; Shanghai, 1937), the way, in a fable, or the memory of a life, a certain critical moment may stand for a year, or a decade, of experience.

The clear story lines of fable — flight, romance, battle scene, epic journey, retrospect — are throughlines around which reverberate the propulsive and complicated sentences Hemon writes, dipping in and out of Bosnian, Ladino (known in the book as Spanjol), German, Turkish, and other languages. Like its sentences, the novel spirals. There were a few places in the love story of Pinto and Osman that felt repetitive to me, but, throughout the novel, the sensation of recurrence is another aspect of what makes it memorable.


“The World and All That It Holds” makes one bold innovative move after another, rapidly changing perspectives, leaping forward with the flexibility of the splendid narrative voice, bringing in powerful characters: a wicked British major, source of conflict and information; the deeply compelling Rahela, who — beautiful, twisting plot — is the child of Rafael and Osman together.

Now, weeks later, I still sometimes startle out of the feeling that I have been cleaning away the dust storm sand to put a small morsel of food into the mouth of the tiny Rahela; or that I cannot sleep, trying to protect her near the edge of that roof in Shanghai so crowded with the other refugees.

I admire, in all of Hemon’s work of research and imagination — in his prodigious novels, and in his work as memoirist, essayist, oral historian — the way he rises to the long fate of chronicling the Bosnian diaspora, and the way he sees that endless work participating in our refugee world. Activity, life whose meaning is caught and held in verbs — being, doing, suffering — is memorable in a special way, and that is, I think, another reason that Hemon’s novel is so entirely engraved. Survival, love, safeguarding a child, survival. Living it once, I live it over and over.


Toward the beginning of the novel, the narrative voice draws our attention to one of time’s most impossible movements. At night, in the war, Rafael Pinto lies trying to sleep, imagining the counterfactual world in which he would not be here banging his shins with his rifle; would not be lying at night “listening to Osman’s sawmill snore from the bunk above him, nor would he have left Manuci in tears and ripping her hair out as she remembered the future in which she never saw her only son again.” The astonishment of this novel is that it creates that movement in time. In “The World and All That It Holds,” we do remember that future, and all the futures it entails.


By Aleksandar Hemon

MCD, 352 pages, $28

Rachel Cohen is the author of “Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels” and a professor at the University of Chicago. She writes about art on Instagram @rachelcohennotebook.