Book reviews: The Book Of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon

Layer by layer, Hemon explores the truth about longing and belonging
Layer by layer, Hemon explores the truth about longing and belonging
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ALEKSANDAR ­Hemon opens this collection of personal essays – his memoir – by describing the moment, at the age of four and a half, when he understood that his baby sister was a permanent fixture: “For a while, as painful as her existence was to me, she was but a new thing, something you had to get around to get to Mother, like a new piece of furniture or a wilted plant in a large pot. But then I realised she was ­going to stay and be a permanent obstacle…”

Ever since Hemon published his first short stories in English in 1995 – three years after arriving in Chicago from war-torn Sarajevo – he has been trailed by critics admiring his mastery of the English language. And here am I, repeating the view. But it’s hard not to.

Hemon is eloquent on the role of fiction as a tool for reframing and processing experience; here, in his first book of non-fiction, he gives us that life experience processed through the simple act of telling it. So we have affectionate, moving and sometimes raw episodes from his childhood and youth in the Balkans, and of his new life in America; discourses on the nature of identity, exile and belonging; essays on family dogs, borscht, chess-playing and amateur football. Every human emotion is represented in these accounts; all offer glimpses of universal truths about “the continuous problem we call life”.

In the opening chapter, en­titled The Lives Of Others, he considers how to answer the bureaucrat’s question, “What are you?” How to sum up, for an immigration or other faceless official, his life as a writer who isn’t constantly writing? Or to say who he is, when he has lived first in a Stalinist state, then in a world torn apart by poisonous politics, then in an alien land that has since become a second home? “I say I’m complicated,” he writes, echoing exactly the words of his fictional, Muslim protagonist Josef Pronek in Nowhere Man. Pronek – just like his alter ego, we discover – became a door-to-door fundraiser for Greenpeace, once he had acquired enough English to do the asking.

The strange thing is that you don’t find yourself crying foul; there’s a strange alchemy through which material that has seen the light before in fiction (more than once) finds freshness in this fresh medium. Not many writers could pull that off, in any language. Partly, it’s the easy grace with which Hemon gets to the core of things; the richness of his imagery. Partly, it’s the skilful way he builds up the picture of his life – his several lives – as in a collage. He gives us his story, and that of his family, roughly in chronological order, but he returns to themes, to places, to people, layer by layer exploring the truth about longing and belonging, of being both an outsider and at home, of loving, or coming to love, two places at the same time. He does this with devastating honesty and good humour. So an account of a disastrous childhood holiday, say – during which his father’s wallet, containing all their cash is stolen and they are stranded – is simultaneously hilarious, poignant and deeply revealing about the human condition. His own various youthful misadventures – a birthday party prank that goes wrong; an avant garde arts group that falls foul of the authorities; a subversive weekly youth radio slot – are presented with a mix of gentle self-mockery and incredulity.

Some subjects are too serious for humour: there’s a nightmarish account of his family’s escape from Sarajevo in the final days before the siege. In a chapter full of quiet outrage, he picks over the character of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic, describing the former president of the Serbian Democratic Party as a man “who grew up in the part of Bosnia where mail is delivered by wolves”.

It is Hemon’s young daughter who helps him understand his drive to make sense of the world through fiction. The product of a happy second marriage (he gives a piercing account of the first’s disintegration), Ella acquires an imaginary friend called Mingus, who helps her, at the age of three, through a time of great family torment. This final chapter is deeply touching; 
but it’s ultimately life-affirming, a tribute to the enduring human spirit and to Hemon’s extraordinary power as a ­narrator. «