By Randy Rosenthal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2013
Who is Aleksandar Hemon? His official biography will tell you that he was born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and that he has lived in the U.S. since 1992, when the Bosnian War began. He started writing in English a few years later, and his early stories about Bosnia and the immigrant experience were collected in his breakout debut, The Question of Bruno. Hemon’s second book, Nowhere Man, which is more a collection of inter-related stories than a novel, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and landed him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003, as well as the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2004. He lived off the grant money to write his third book, The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. Since then, Hemon has become a darling of the New Yorker, frequently contributes to Granta and Esquire, and has edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction series. It’s clear that Hemon is a major force in contemporary literature. But who is he, really? Who was he before he blew up? Is his fiction as autobiographical as it appears? His latest book, The Book of My Lives, a collection of personal essays, will reveal the man behind the novels, stories, and awards, and it will make fans of readers currently unfamiliar with his work.
It was a still socialist, post-Tito Yugoslavia when Hemon was in his twenties and helped his friends throw a mock-Nazi officers’ party, which became a Sarajevan scandal. “My mother’s hair became all gray early,” he writes, “and I am afraid much of it was due to my adventures.” He edited the culture section of a socialist newspaper, Nasi dani. He wrote obscure radio programs about fictional historical figures. During the summers, Hemon spent a monastic existence at his family’s mountain cottage, reading nearly ten hours a day in an effort to prevent the encroaching violence from entering his mental space. Then, decades of ethnic hatred exploded in 1992, and the Serbian attempt to exterminate Bosnians forced Hemon’s family into “otherness.”
Many of the essays specify what has remained vague in Hemon’s fiction: how he ended up in America. He had applied to the American Culture Center, and was later awarded a visa to travel to Chicago. He was scheduled to return to Bosnia the day before the war began, but missed his plane and applied for refugee status. In his novel The Lazarus Project, Hemon’s narrator Brik says that “to be an American you have to know nothing and understand even less,” and that he “does not want to be an American.” Despite this sentiment, Americans can now claim Hemon as one of our own.
Several essays in The Book of My Lives trace the transformation of Hemon’s “Sarajevo self” to his Chicago self. He works as a canvasser for Greenpeace, teaches ESL, plays soccer with other foreigners, wanders the city, spends afternoons in cinemas, reads books, and survives on coffee and cigarettes. He does the same things great writers did in their youth, before they were great writers. Hemon states that home is where one has their kafana (a café-cum-bar), barber, a butcher, and where one is known by other locals. Gradually, Hemon makes Chicago his home, even though he fattens himself up at Burger King, the coffee tastes like “burnt corn,”and and he can’t find good borscht. The only previously unpublished essay in the collection is “The Lives of Grandmasters,” which traces Hemon’s chess experiences from Bosnia to the U.S.—and which you can read an excerpt from here.
Yet even as Hemon becomes an American, everything circles back to Bosnia. Helpless in America, Hemon hears of how his friends are surviving the siege of Sarajevo, how a good dinner was “a slice of bread sprinkled with oil; rice was all that was available for most of the people, meal after meal, day after day.” The street leading to his old apartment was renamed “sniper’s alley.” In “The Lives of a Flaneur,” Hemon returns to his home city in 2007, and his relatives show the marks of snipers’ bullets in their walls, causing Hemon to write, “war is the most concrete thing there can be, a fantastic reality that levels both interiority and exteriority into the flatness of a crushed soul.”
The essays also reveal how Hemon formed his writing style. In one of the most disconcerting essays, “The Book of My Life,” Hemon writes about his favorite philosophy professor, who later went on to help war criminal Radovan Karadžić’s attempt at genocide. It is because of this professor, Hemon explains, that his writing is “infused with testy impatience for bourgeois babbling.” After experiencing the horror in watching sane men go violently mad, Hemon knows that it is “better to be silent than to say what didn’t matter.” This is why every sentence Hemon writes is captivating, why he wastes not a word, and why we want to know everything he wants to tell. In other words, the MacArthur group had it right: Hemon has the magic spark of genius.
Other essays describe Hemon’s love life—his first, failed marriage, and the beginning of his second. In one of the most moving pieces, “The Aquarium,” Hemon shares the experience dealing with the brain cancer that killed his nine-month-old daughter, when “in twenty-four hours or so, [his] existence was horribly and irreversibly transformed,” when he and his wife’s life was “divided into before and after, whereby the before was forever foreclosed, while the after was spreading out, like an exploding twinkle-star, into a dark universe of pain.”
In the story “Death of the American Commando” from Love and Obstacles, Hemon writes about “a kind of serenity earned through suffering, therefore unattainable by—perhaps even invisible to—those who had not experienced severe loss and pain.” By reading the essays in The Book of My Lives, we understand the origin of the serenity that characterizes Hemon’s prose. While Hemon clarifies that pain is not redemptive—writing, “one of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling, that it is a step on the path of some kind of enlightenment or salvation”—he proves that suffering is formative.
The Book of My Lives is a testament that Hemon an even greater talent at memoir than at fiction; without the necessity of crafting “a story,” the essays are more honest, more believable, and therefore more penetrating, powerful, and moving. Hemon writes fiction because he “cannot not do it,” but also because he is aware that humans “process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.” Could an argument for the importance of literature be better expressed? One can only hope that Hemon continues to write stories throughout a long life. Whether the stories are fiction or memoir, they’ll be genius.