“Part of growing up is learning, unfortunately, to develop loyalties to abstractions: the state, the nation, the idea,” writes Aleksandar Hemon in The Book of My Lives, “You pledge allegiance; you love the leader. You have to be taught to recognise and care about differences, you have to be instructed who you really are; you have to learn how generations of dead people and their incomprehensible accomplishments made you the way you are; you have to define your loyalty to an abstraction-based herd that transcends your individuality.” This is the way in most cultures and countries, but especially those saddled with a draconian regime. Hemon, who grew up in Sarajevo, writes of the experience with ebullience that hasn’t dulled with either years or geographical distance. The Book of My Lives documents some of the social injustices and cruelties endured by the Bosnian people prior to and during the 1990s war. It regards the subject through a personal lens, delivering moving accounts of the villainies witnessed by Hemon, his family and friends. Hemon recalls vividly the exact moment he realised the pernicious nature of the Socialist rule, when after (a grossly misjudged) fascist-themed birthday party he and some of his friends were summoned to the State Security offices. “They interrogated me for thirteen hours straight,” Hemon recalls, “in the course of which I discovered that all the other people who attended the party had visited or were going to visit the warm State Security offices…Naïvely, I assumed that if I explain to them that it was really just a performance, a bad joke at worst…they would just slap our wrists…and let us go home.” They did, of course, let the adolescents go eventually but the story developed into nationwide news with the group being labelled the “Nazi Nineteen,” which Hemon says was a very surreal experience, likening it to “reading a novel in which one of the characters – a feckless nihilistic prick – had my name”.
For a while after and despite evidence to the contrary Hemon and his friends continued to rely on what they “stubbornly perceived as normalcy,” ignoring the fact that Croatia was in the throes of war and Bosnia was soon to follow. Working as a writer for a magazine at the time, Hemon recalls the months preceding the war through a fuliginous haze of hashish, sex, writing assignments and Dean Martin’s euphonious crooning. “We did it all,” he says nostalgically, “staying up all night to close and lay out an issue of the magazine, subsisting on coffee and cigarettes and trance; consuming pornography and writing poetry; participating in passionate soccer-related discussions and endless manic debates…Then there was rampant, ecstatic promiscuity…It was a great fucking time.” A time that was swiftly succeeded, he goes on to tell us, by the incontrovertible fact that “the war had arrived and now we were all waiting to see, who would live, who would kill, and who would die.” Hemon writes of his subsequent depression and hopelessness with intense acuity, imbuing this time spent largely in isolation with cultural and philosophical contemplations which enrich the narrative with a sense of universal resonance. It is here that Hemon’s memoir works best, when his voice is subjective, idiosyncratic and entirely his own. There are moments in the book, however, when Hemon writes as a seemingly impartial observer as he does, for example, in a chapter called Let There Be What Cannot Be. “In April, [Radovan] Karadžić’s snipers aimed at a peaceful anti-war demonstration in front of the parliament building,” he reports, “and two women were killed. On May 2, Sarajevo was cut off from the rest of the world and the longest siege in modern history began. By the end of the summer, nearly every front page in the universe had published a picture of a Serbian death camp.” This kind of divagation is no surprise when one learns that all the pieces in The Book of My Lives were written individually rather than as a collective whole. They have since been revised and reassembled, but the narrative disparity – infinitesimal as it its – contributes to the overall fragmentation of the book. This is compounded by the middle chapter called This Is Why I Do Not Want To Leave Chicago, which is essentially a list – a very interesting and articulate list but nevertheless a list – at odds with the rest of the book.
The all-important aspects of Hemon’s life, however, are certainly here . The birth of his sister which marked a “tormentful, lonely period” in the writer’s formative development; his early experiences of the divisive ethic system; his realisation about his parents’ fallibility; the “ceaseless debasement” of army life; the atrocities of war; the torturous complexity of immigration; incurable homesickness and the protracted and debilitating process of constructing a new life. The latter is something Hemon ruminates on with the weight of bitter experience, conveying the hardships of adapting to a new world through his own eyes as well as those of his mother and father. A year after Hemon left Sarajevo for the US (1992) his parents and his sister immigrated to Canada. The escape itself had been precarious enough, but no one could have prepared the Hemons for the difficulties that followed. “Things were very complicated for them,” writes Hemon of his parents in Canada, “what with the language my parents couldn’t speak, the generic shock of displacement and the cold climate that was extremely unfriendly to randomly warm human interactions.” In fact, as we go on to learn, the whole process was far more serious than that. “Within months my parents started cataloguing the differences between us and them,” Hemon explains, “we being Bosnians or ex Yugoslavs, they being purely Canadian.” At one point, the writer recalls how this caused a rift between him and his family, who was beset by “devastating nostalgia and hopelessness” at their new life. Hemon writes very candidly about the various adversities in adapting and trying to encourage his parents to do the same. “I was incapable of helping them in any way,” he writes, “During my visits, we argued too much: their despair annoyed me, because it exactly matched mine and prevented them from offering comfort to me…Everything we did in Canada reminded us of what we used to do together in Bosnia.”
The Book of My Lives is full of such plaintive moments. Hemon remembers the acclimatisation process with plangent astuteness, his words reverberating with a familiar if distant echo of longing. “Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past,” he explains, ”with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances…At the same time there is the inescapable reality of the self-transformed by immigration – whoever we used to be, we are now split between us-here (say, in Canada) and us-there (say, in Bosnia).” To bridge this gap, between his old and new self, Hemon set out to explore his adopted hometown and this is precisely how he documents his time in Chicago; as a wanderer, a searching flaneur, who grows to love his new city through familiarity, slowly forging relationships with its places and people. “I realized that my immigrant interior had begun to merge with my American exterior,” Hemon recalls after a couple of years of living in the US, “Large parts of Chicago had entered me and settled there; I fully owned those parts now. I saw Chicago through the eyes of Sarajevo and the two cities now created a complicated internal landscape in which stories could be generated.” And there are certainly many – and wonderful – stories that have been generated and gathered here, which Hemon started writing in English as soon as his displacement anxiety began to dissipate. They are the Lives referred to in the book’s title, split between his early years in Bosnia and subsequent struggles and his time in the US, focusing on the city of Chicago; his local football team, the chess players with whom he shared his passion, his past lovers, his ex and present wife, his daughter Isabel’s battle with cancer and his older daughter Ella’s imaginary friend.
The Book of My Lives is Hemon’s first collection of non-fiction, consisting of 15 pieces of autobiography assembled loosely together into a variegated whole. It is a short but surprisingly compendious read, offering great insight into the writer’s past and present. Hemon is someone who manages to convey the emotional complexities of loss and extant pain with superb clarity and feeling.“How can you possibly ease yourself into the death of your own child,” he asks, “For one thing, it is supposed to happen well after your own dissolution into nothingness. Your children are supposed to outlive you by several decades, in the course of which they’ll live their lives, happily devoid of the burden of your presence, eventually completing the same mortal trajectory as their parents: oblivion, denial, fear, the end…And even if you could imagine your own child’s death, why would you?” But sadly the unimaginable became a reality for Hemon and his family, when their infant daughter died of a rare brain tumour . “Teri [Hemon’s wife] and I held our dead child – our beautiful, ever-smiling daughter, her body bloated with liquid and beaten by compression,” he writes, “- kissing her cheeks and toes. Through I recall the moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me.” Hemon lays himself bare on the page, vacillating candidly, unashamedly, from hope to joy to grief to disbelief and anger. “One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling,” he rages, “that it is a step on the path of some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. The only result of her suffering that matters is her death. We learned no lesson worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anybody.” Hemon’s memoir ends with this heart-wrenching story, which is both overwhelming and very moving. Speaking about writing, in more general terms, Hemon recently said that literature was “human experience in language” and that what mattered was not the “information about the past or the present” but the “intensity and depth of experience of reading and imagining other lives.” And this is the key to the Book of his, his many lives, all of which – the good, the bad, the joyous and the tragic – are very much worth reading and imagining.
Book Browse | Aleksandar Hemon
Publication Date: March 2013
Hardback: 224 pages