California Literary Review

Book Review: The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

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May 2nd, 2013 at 9:32 am

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Book jacket: The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
The Book of My Lives
by Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 214 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


Hemon presents himself as a cluster of selves in
“The Book of My Lives.”

In the Acknowledgements to The Book of My Lives, his first volume of non-fiction, Hemon writes, “I write fiction because I cannot not do it, but I have to be pressed into writing nonfiction.” There is a feeling of reticence hanging over this collection, which is composed of revised articles and essays published elsewhere. The title The Book of My Lives is apt: rather than presenting a seamless memoir, Hemon instead emphasizes discontinuity, a series of Aleksandar Hemons moving before us in different settings, sometimes without roots to ground them. His decision to provide his version of a table of contents at the end of the book, and to title it “Table of Discontents,” is a play on words that reveals a sense of sadness and dislocation. Given Hemon’s identity as a Bosnian who emigrated to the United States and watched much of the violence and destruction of his homeland from afar, this is not surprising. And indeed, Hemon’s trademark use of language, his somewhat distanced critical eye, and his appreciation for the absurdities of life come together to make this autobiographical collection greater than the sum of its parts.

Hemon opens with “The Lives of Others,” a seven-part chapter in which he explores identity in many forms. He begins in “Who is That?” with the startling changes brought into his life by the birth of his sister Kristina in 1969 when he was four years old, and his attempts to “exterminate” her by choking her:

“Suddenly, I recognized that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing, I shouldn’t be killing her, because she was my little sister, because I loved her. But the body is always ahead of the thought and I kept up the pressure for another moment, until she started vomiting curdled breast milk. I was terrified with the possibility of losing her: her name was Kristina; I was her big brother; I wanted her to live so I could love her more. But, although I knew how I could end her life, I didn’t know how I could stop her from dying.”

Luckily, his mother came to the rescue, but this episode remained important for Hemon’s sense of identity:

“The recollection of that sororicide attempt is the earliest memory in which I can observe myself from outside: what I see is me and my sister. Never again would I be alone in the world, never again would I have it exclusively for myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others. Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself.”

Throughout the rest of the chapter, Hemon continues to explore different facets of his identity through his life: the importance of the raja, a generational hierarchy of children in Sarajevo organized by location; the immigrant experiences of his parents and sister when they moved to Ontario in 1993; the crucial importance of ethnic identity in Bosia, where it shadowed all other aspects of identity. Hemon concludes by considering how he would now answer the question, “Who are you?”:

“So I say I am complicated. I’d also like to add that I am nothing if not an entanglement of unanswerable questions, a cluster of others.

“I’d like to say it might be too early to tell.”

Many of the other chapters in The Book of My Lives are less obviously thematic, but continue to reveal Hemon’s discomfort with his identity. In “Family Dining,” he considers the ways that eating borscht transports him from Chicago, back in time and across space to Hemon family meals in Sarajevo. In “The Kauders Case,” he describes the surprising ways in which fiction became life when he aired some radio pieces based on a character he developed, Alphonse Kauders, as a means to criticize Tito. In several chapters, Hemon describes the mountain cabin at the Jahorina ski resort where he not only spent family vacations, but also weathered the violence from the Croatian war in 1991:

“My monastic mountain living was now about rudimentary thought protection, for once war got inside my mind, I feared, it would burn and pillage it. I read The Magic Mountain and Kafka’s letters; I wrote stuff full of madness, death, and whimsical wordplay; I listened to Miles Davis, who died that fall, while staring at the embers in our fireplace. On my hikes I conducted imaginary conversations with imaginary partners, not unlike the ones between Castorp and Settembrini in Mann’s novel. I chopped a lot of wood to ease my rising anxiety. Occasionally, I climbed a steep mountain face without any gear or protection. It was a kind of suicidal self-soothing challenge: if I made it all the way to the top without falling, I thought, I could survive the war. One of the daily rituals was watching the nightly news broadcast at 7:30, and the news was never good, always worse.”

Hemon’s sense of watching the Croatian war from a distance permeates his life in the US as well. In “The Lives of a Flaneur,” Hemon remembers his experiences volunteering at the International Human Rights Law Institute of DePaul University’s College of Law, where he contributed to a project investigating Bosnian war crimes by identifying the location of destroyed and damaged buildings in Sarajevo:

“Many of the buildings photographed were roofless, hole-ridden, or burned, their windows blown out. There were few people in those pictures, but what I was doing felt very much like identifying corpses. Now and then I could recall the street or even the exact address; sometimes the buildings were so familiar they seemed unreal. There was, for example, the building at the corner of Danijela Ozme and Kralja Tomislava, across from which I used to wait for Renata, my high school girlfriend, to come down from Džidžikovac. Back then, there was a supermarket on the ground floor of the building, where I’d buy candy or cigarettes when she was late, which was always. I’d known that building for years. It had stood in its place solid, indelible. I’d never devoted any thought to it until I saw its picture in Chicago. In the photograph, the building was hollow, disemboweled by a shell, which had evidently fallen through the roof and dropped down a few floors. The supermarket now existed only in the flooded storage space of my memory.

“There were also buildings that I recognized but could not exactly place. And then there were the ones that were wholly unknown to me—I couldn’t even figure out what part of town they might have been in. I have learned since then that you don’t need to know every part of a city to own the whole of it, but in that office in downtown Chicago it terrified me to think that there was some part of Sarajevo I didn’t know and probably never would, as it was now disintegrating, like a cardboard stage set, in the rain of shells. If my mind and my city were the same thing then I was losing my mind. Converting Chicago into my personal space became not just metaphysically essential but psychiatrically urgent as well.”

In addition to writing heartrending passages like the ones above, Hemon also gives full rein to his eye for detail and his love of the absurd, especially in the chapter “If God Existed, He’d Be A Solid Mid-Fielder,” in which he describes his experiences playing in weekend soccer games with other immigrants to Chicago. The chapter is filled with finely-observed details about the different men with whom he was playing, including some beautifully grounded descriptions of a game that was interrupted by a torrential downpour:

“Meanwhile, on the bike path, Lalas (nicknamed after the American soccer player) stands beside his wife, who is in a wheelchair. She has a horrific case of fast-advancing MS and cannot move fast enough to get out of the rain. They stand together, waiting for the calamity to end: Lalas in his Uptown United T-shirt, his wife under a piece of cardboard slowly and irreversibly dissolving in the rain. The Tibetan goalie and his Tibetan friends, whom I’d never seen before and never would after that day, are playing a game on the field, which is now completely covered with water, as if running in slow motion on the surface of a placid river. The ground is giving off vapor, the mist touching their ankles, and at moments it seems that they’re levitating above the flood. Lalas and his wife are perfectly calm watching them, as if nothing could ever harm them. (She has passed away since that day, somebody rest her soul.) They see one of the Tibetans scoring a goal, the rain-heavy ball sliding between the hands of the goalie, who lands in a puddle. He is untroubled, smiling, and from where I sit, he could well be the Dalai Lama himself.”

For Hemon, the sense of being “completely connected with everything and everyone around you” made moments like this a necessary part of his life in Chicago.

The most personal and moving chapter is Hemon’s final one, “The Aquarium,” a wrenching description of the illness and death of his younger daughter Isabel from an extremely rare atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor. The chapter moves back and forth from the hospital where Isabel had surgeries and chemotherapy treatments (starting when she was 10 months old), to his home where he and his wife Teri tried to help their older daughter Ella live as normal life as possible under the circumstances. Ella started to talk about an imaginary brother, named Mingus, who was later represented by an inflatable blue space alien. This alien is depicted on the cover of The Books of My Lives. Mingus represents the power of imagination to cope with tragedies. It seems fitting that Hemon concludes this honest, open, terribly sad chapter with these words:

“Mingus is still good and well, going steadily about his alternative-existence business. Although he stays with us a lot, he lives around the corner yet again, with his parents and a variable number of siblings, most recently two brothers, Jackon and Cliff, and a sister, Piccadilly. He has had his own children—three sons, at one point, one of whom was called Andy. When we went skiing, Mingus preferred snowboarding. When we went to London for Christmas, Mingus went to Nebraska. He plays chess (“chest” in Ella’s parlance) pretty well, it seems. Sometimes he yells at Ella (“Shut up, Mingus!” she yells back); other times he loses his own voice, but then speaks in Isabel’s. He is also a good magician. With his magic wand, Ella says, he can make Isabel reappear.”

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