Book review: The Book of My Lives By Aleksandar Hemon

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ALEKSANDAR Hemon is one of the most interesting and accomplished writers of first decades of the 21st century.

The Book of My Lives

By Aleksandar Hemon

Picador, 214 pp, £20

The Bosnian-born author of The Lazarus Project, Nowhere Man, Love and Obstacles and The Question of Bruno grew up in Sarajevo: when the war broke out and that city was besieged he was in Chicago for a month as part of the International Visitors’ Programme, and, after applying for political asylum, has stayed there.

The experience of civil war and being a refugee is clearly reflected in his creative work. In “The Lives of a Flaneur”, one of the essays collected here as The Book Of My Lives, he writes “my displacement was metaphysical to the precisely same extent to which it was physical”. James Wood, in a typically incisive and enthusiastic essay on Hemon, proposes that “more than any other American novelists I can think of, he has made a running autobiographical fiction of his actual circumstances – the childhood in Sarajevo, the exile in America, the early hardships of Chicago. He is a fabulist but not really a postmodernist; or rather, he is a postmodernist who has been mugged by history”. The Book Of My Lives is a non-fiction pendant to the novels and short stories, but it is as artfully constructed and as emotionally devastating as his fictional oeuvre.

Hemon’s literature is unique in simultaneously stressing the actuality of events (hence the interweaving of autobiographical elements) with a keen sense of the ludic fictitiousness of fiction. These essays clarify this position, especially in the essay entitled “The Book Of My Life”, about Hemon’s literature professor at the University of Sarajevo, Nikola Koljevic. A cultured individual with a passion for Shakespeare and the “New Criticism” of Cleanth Brooks, he nevertheless rose to a position of prominence in Radovan Karadžic’s Serbian Democratic Party, and, as Hemon says “in 1997 he blew his Shakespeare-laden brains out. He had to shoot twice, his long piano-player fingers apparently having trebled on the unwieldy trigger”. Hemon writes movingly about having to unread works he loved – Danilo Kis, Leo Tolstoy – that the Professor’s moral perfidy had somehow infected. The Bosnian war was, in ways which are as horrific as ironic, a very literary war. In “Let There Be What Cannot Be”, Hemon analyses the way “The Mountain Wreath”, a 19th-century epic poem by Petar Petrovic Njegoš, was deployed in the war. Karadži was an aspiring poet himself: the essay ends “a local newspaper claimed that, on at least one occasion, Karadžic performed an epic poem in which he himself featured as the main hero, undertaking feats of extermination. Consider the horrible postmodernism of the situation: an undercover war criminal narrating his own crimes in decasyllabic verse, erasing his personality so that he could assert it more forcefully and heroically”. Against such a background, Hemon’s insistence that literature is real and really made up takes on a moral dimension.

In “The Kaunders Case”, Hemon discusses pre-civil war Yugoslavia, and provides some interesting background material to his 1995, first English language story “The Life And Work Of Alphonse Kaunders”. A prank metamorphosed into a tale – the Kaunders material was read on radio as if Hemon were an academic, causing listeners to write in to point out the “errors” (for example, a doctor wrote in to complain that it was impossible to remove one’s own appendix, as Hemon claimed Kaunders had); but it took on more sinister overtones when Hemon was investigated by the secret police for his participation in a mock-fascist cocktail party. His account of the “Volens Nolens” (Willy-Nilly) club captures some of the sophomoric, Dadaist resistance to totalitarianism. It seems almost innocence given the war we all know is looming.

There is a profound humanism in Hemon’s work, which, on occasion, just skirts above sentimentality. In, for example, “Family Dining”, he discusses the unwritten recipe for the Hemon family borscht. Winningly, he describes the borscht as “utopian” since “ideally, it contains everything; it is produced and consumed collectively... A perfect borscht is what a life should be but never is”, though the final flourish – the crucial ingredient being a “large, hungry family” – is ever so slightly mawkish. That humanism appears again in “If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder” and in his ruminations on chess-playing in “The Lives of Grandmasters”. That essay ends with a vision that underpins much of Hemon’s writing. “There is always a story, I learned on that walk, more heartbreaking and compelling than yours”.

Except, except: the final piece in the book, “The Aquarium”, is perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of non-fiction I have ever read – and I don’t mind saying that I had a lump in my throat throughout it. On a seemingly routine health-check, it was discovered that Hemon’s one-year-old younger daughter had an “atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour”, a cancer so rare it isn’t even mentioned in the literature the doctors gave Hemon and his wife. The essay has moments of ghastly humour – the banal insensitivities and platitudinous counselling – but is raw and anguished. Hemon, as a writer, finds his imagination is now a curse: “I dared not imagine Isabel’s survival, because I thought I would thus jinx it”, “I could not write a story that would help me comprehend what was happening”.

Worst of all, when she does eventually succumb to the illness, Hemon writes of them packing up toys, clothes, and “the debris of before” “like refugees”. The rest of the book has already established that being “like” a refugee is not a simile for Hemon, but an acutely lived experience. Its transformation here is utterly plangent. “The Aquarium” has dignity in its refusal to be dignified and a form of consolation of honesty in refusing the consolations.

The Book Of My Lives is a wonderful collection, and the earlier descriptions of literary shenanigans and family borscht soften the reader up for the climactic blow of the final essay. Our lives, Hemon seems to say, are stories we are constantly retelling: except, tragically, when they’re not.