Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives

9780374115739Reflection by Joseph Riippi

Some things you should know about me. The day a new Radiohead record comes out, I buy it. The day a new Aaron Sorkin show premieres, I watch it. And the day a new Aleksandar Hemon book is announced, I find a galley and devour it. That’s not to say those things correlate. This is to say that I’m a fan. So that’s disclosure.

The Book of My Lives collects the best of Hemon’s nonfiction pieces from as far back as a dozen years ago. But it reads more like a novel than a collection of essays. Hemon grew up and became a writer in Sarajevo, but in one of life’s more dramatic forks-in-the-road, he was visiting Chicago on a cultural visa when Sarajevo came under military lockdown. He couldn’t return for years, during which time the country changed not just politically but physically. Bullet holes and bombs, missing dogs. Missing time.

Upon his eventual return to Sarajevo on a visit, in “The Lives of a Flaneur:”

As a Bosnian in Chicago, I’d experienced one form of displacement, but this was another: I was displaced in a place that had been mine. In Sarajevo, everything around me was familiar to the point of pain and entirely uncanny and distant…

I’d left Sarajevo for America on January 24, 1992. I had no way of knowing at the time that I’d return to my hometown only as an irreversibly displaced visitor. I was twenty-seven (and a half) and had never lived anywhere else, nor had any desire to do so. I’d spent the few years before the trip [to America] working as a journalist…My last paid job was for Naši dani, where I edited the culture pages.

Hemon stayed in Chicago, and faced restarting his life in a new (and less-edited) culture. The Book of My Lives tells a story of coming-of-age in America, of trying to be in two places at once, of trying to recapture the past and define what makes a home, in order to remake one. It’s a beautiful book, full of heart and longing, of bonds across oceans and borders and time.

And species, too. In “Dog Lives,” Hemon writes of the canine family members the Hemons had in both Bosnia and America. Like Mek, the auburn Irish setter, whom the author’s father snuck out of the war-torn city and to freedom. And Don, the German shepherd Aleksandar’s best friend kept secret in Sarajevo throughout the war:

Packs of abandoned dogs roamed the city, sometimes attacking humans or tearing up fresh corpses. To have and feed a dog was a suspicious luxury, yet [my friend’s] family shared with Don whatever they had—all of them were now skin and bones…

When they took Don out to pee, Veba and his family had to stay within a narrow space protected by their high-rise from the Serb snipers. The children played with him and he let them pet him. Within weeks, Don developed an uncanny ability to sense an imminent mortar-shell attack: he’d bark and move anxiously in circles; bristling, he’d jump on Veba’s mother’s shoulders and push her until she and everyone else rushed back into the building.

I’ve felt somehow close to Aleksandar Hemon for years now. Not personally, of course. Although we have met a couple times. But I’m certain he has no idea who I am. Before I moved to New York City, my wife (then girlfriend) moved here. We met in college; she graduated a year before me. I was just starting think seriously about trying to become a writer, and when I came to visit she took me to the Strand. I went looking for Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I’d somehow managed twenty-one years of life without reading, and came across a copy of Hemon’s first book, the novella and stories The Question of Bruno. He won a MacArthur Genius Grant on its merits. It was only six dollars, and it was signed. It felt like a sign. I bought it. I loved it.

I’d never read stories told more in footnotes than in proper prose. I’d never read such sentences, such carefully chosen words with such attention to language. Granted, I hadn’t read much at all yet. Later, reading Nabokov, I’d think of Hemon. Even more later, I’d discover Gordon Lish and his stable, and think of Hemon. It feels selfish to say so, but I somehow identified with Hemon’s sense of displacement in those first stories of Sarajevo and Chicago. I’d left Seattle for Virginia, and then Virginia to Manhattan. I hadn’t been forced away by war, but I was away and knew I was not going back. Not ever for good.

We all have our own wars. And our childhood homes, no matter how much we love them, will be destroyed in some fashion by the mortar shells of time. Then they exist on only in memory. And Hemon’s stories and memories are all the more powerful for the degree to which they eclipse our own:

Nowadays in Sarajevo, death is all too easy to imagine and is continuously, undeniably present, but back then the city—a beautiful, immortal thing, an indestructible republic of urban spirit—was fully alive both inside and outside me. Its indelible sensory dimension, its concreteness, seemed to defy the abstractions of war. I have learned since that 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 Book of My Lives will remind you of who and why you love. And if literature is something you love, too, well, I recommend you welcome Aleksandar Hemon into your home.

The Book of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 224 pages. $25.00, hardcover.

Joseph Riippi’s books include A Cloth House (Housefire Books, 2012), The Orange Suitcase (Ampersand Books, 2011), and Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! (Ampersand Books, 2009). His next,Research (A Novel for Performance), is forthcoming in 2014 from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

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