“I WAS A NIHILIST,” writes Aleksandar Hemon, “and lived with my parents. I even started thinking up an Anthology of Irrelevant Poetry, sensing that it was my only hope of ever getting anthologized.” He adds, “Nothing came of it, although there was a world of irrelevant poetry everywhere around us. There was nothing to do, and we were running out of ways to do it.” Hemon’s slim new collection of essays, The Book of My Lives, elicits admiration and joy, and we forgive the expat any moments of arrogance or cruelty because, though his youth in Sarajevo might be said to have been peculiarly comfortable, it also obscured a growing avalanche of darkness.
What is so compelling about Hemon, the brooding Eastern European? Perhaps it’s the way he handles particular traumas and contradictions. In an early essay, he tells of being present at a boozy art party, the co-host of which is a woman who would become a rabid nationalist, and of a favorite university professor who would later act as an articulate defender of genocide. Hemon comes away from such encounters seeming both humble and wise. He writes:
The morning after [the party], I woke up with a sense of shame that always goes with getting too drunk, usually remedied by a lot of citric acid and sleep. Yet the sense of shame wouldn’t go away for a while. Indeed, it is still around.
The author handles a sense of shame with as much finesse as any other sensory provocation — for instance, here he is on a classic soup:
The vinegary tartness, always refreshing in the summer; the crunchy beet cubes (beets go in last); the luck-of-the-spoon-draw combinations of ingredients, providing different shades of taste with each slurp — eating borscht was always eventful, never boring.
Not everyone could make “the crucial ingredient of the perfect borscht” feel so momentous. One can imagine Hemon just as deftly celebrating a trip to the dry cleaners.
Indeed, Hemon spares no artistry in thoughtfully rendering his mother, father, and delightful sister — all of whom I’d happily invite to dinner tomorrow. We cannot help but care for them, connecting their various ambitions and sufferings to our own, such as in the essay “Sound and Vision,” perhaps the best in the collection. When the otherwise stolid patriarch loses his wallet on a family vacation in Italy, the group is only able to finally rest and eat once Hemon’s mother pawns her jewelry. “I still cherish the memory,” he writes, explaining that
[I]t fully contains all the smells, sounds, and visions from the evening when the Hemons leisurely strolled along the Lido, as if on vacation, the parents holding hands, as if in love, the children licking gelato paid for with family gold. In the middle of catastrophe, the Hemons managed to scrounge up some makeshift joy.
Then the gears of war begin to grind, and it’s important to note how much time has passed since the Yugoslav Wars, allowing Hemon to write with perspective and care about joining the army, where, “if you had any food left after stuffing yourself, you bartered it for clean socks and shirts, for an extra shower or daytime fire-watch shift.” He impresses upon us the fact that, for a younger soldier on the front, care packages from home are a respite from madness: “Food wasn’t meant to be shared, because it was a survival commodity. I had no trouble imagining heroically facing the foreign enemy only to get a bullet in my back and die for the tuna can in my pocket.” Just before war breaks out, Hemon visits a café and what he sees is stirring:
I watched glassy-eyed people stare into the terrible distance, barely talking to one another, some of them drugged to the brim, some of them naturally paralyzed, all of them terrified with what was now undeniable: it was all over. The war had arrived and now we were all waiting to see who would live, who would kill, and who would die.
In watching and waiting and eventually leaving, Hemon has a kind of horrible luck — the ability and opportunity to write about these awesome shifts in history, with facts so heavy they speak for themselves. There’s typical reserve when he describes what happened to trains after his parents catch the final coach from Sarajevo. “Soon,” he writes, “the station was subjected to a rocket attack; no train would leave the city for ten years or so.” Note the passive construction “was subjected” and the torturously casual “or so.” A decade! He’s earned the understatement.
The expat’s serious writing career includes dozens of short stories (some of which appear in collections), three fantastic novels, and now his nonfiction Book of My Lives. Over the course of these essays, we eventually spend nearly as much time in America as we do in his homeland, coming to know more of the author’s love for Lake Michigan and his adopted Chicago neighborhood, of his early poverty in the States, and of the slow assimilation of English as the key to begin telling his story. But always Hemon takes us back to the formative years in Bosnia. Frequent and occasionally stinging are the new American’s gems of comparison; of life in Sarajevo he writes:
Your sense of who you were, your deepest identity, was determined by your position in a human network, whose physical corollary was the architecture of the city. Chicago, on the other hand, was built not for people to come together but for them to be safely apart.
Hemon is a well-educated refugee, a former newspaper writer and radio host, able to see the oncoming train, who approaches a soccer game like a steadily advancing phalanx of Germans: “Playing soccer was closely related to being fully alive.”
Fully alive — that’s not an easy notion for exiles like Hemon, with all their attendant burdens and social baggage. At a cafe in Chicago, a friend is ready to physically harm two bubbly teens idly blathering. Hemon writes:
To him, in whose throat the bone of displacement was forever stuck, it 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 stay silent than to say what didn’t matter.
But eventually the bone melts away and the exile becomes an American. The book’s final essay, “The Aquarium,” first appeared in The New Yorker, and with this piece I experienced what many fellow parents would confirm was a shared reaction: that it was nearly impossible not to weep. But who wouldn’t be affected by a wrenching blow-by-blow account of a nine-month-old daughter, abruptly hospitalized for an extremely rare and deadly brain cancer?
I think we can all respect the power of a singular, haunting gasp — that explosion of emotion that comes with profound loss. But this kind of pure pain — it’s part of a world we might see more clearly, perhaps, when we let things go for a while, when we allow such stories to settle — when we can identify the difference between wanting to scream and the deafening necessity of silence, or waiting.
Am I churlish or unreasonable to say “The Aquarium” is one of the weakest pieces, that it pales in comparison to a book of sharper and more controlled essays, all loaded with heavy and significant, but also wry and rich, allusions? They feature distance and intelligence about old times made new with the keenest of lenses. We’ve all seen horror. Maybe Hemon’s seen more, but what makes him special is that he often knows how to make it mean something. And for the most part, he’s allowed himself the time to let raw emotions mellow into something stronger.
The worst we can do to one another — hatred, war — is more vexing and confusing than what we cannot control, such as a little girl’s cancer. America is a big place, and the world even bigger. Whatever happens next, to any of us, I trust Hemon will continue seeking the right words, watching and waiting, and will remain among the most insightful voices of our time.