Review: 'The Book of My Lives' by Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon, the 48-year-old Bosnian refugee who has become one of this city's literary rock stars, can amuse and he can devastate. That he does both in his second language, wielded with precision and elegance, has earned him comparisons to Nabokov and Joseph Conrad.

Hemon's gifts are on ample display in his first nonfiction work, "The Book of My Lives." Not a conventional memoir, the book is a collection of short pieces, most previously published and arranged here in rough chronological order. Sometimes sketchy, characteristically idiosyncratic and sardonic, nearly always engaging, they constitute an impressionistic overview of Hemon's lives in both his native Sarajevo and his adopted city of Chicago.

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Hemon first came to the United States in 1992 on a visit that turned into permanent residence when war and ethnic cleansing engulfed the disintegrating remnants of Yugoslavia. After holding a series of odd jobs, Hemon hit his literary stride, and the accolades began to flow. In 2003 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2004, a much-coveted "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.

Hemon's reputation rests primarily on four works of fiction: "The Question of Bruno" (2000); "Nowhere Man" (2002), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; "The Lazarus Project" (2008), a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and "Love and Obstacles" (2009).

Because he has frequently mined his own experiences, including his immigrant and marital travails, in his fiction, the Hemon that readers encounter in "The Book of My Lives" is not an entirely unfamiliar figure. He bears, for example, more than a passing resemblance to Vladimir Brik, one of the protagonists of "The Lazarus Project." Brik, like Hemon, is a Sarajevo exile and a writer of some ambition who struggles to gain a foothold in America. And Hemon, like Brik, traveled through Eastern Europe with a photographer friend, researching a novel about an Eastern European Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch. The resulting photographs (as in the work of W.G. Sebald) illustrate "The Lazarus Project," further blurring the line between the invented and the actual.

The porousness of the border between the two is a typically postmodernist obsession that Hemon shares. Admirers of Hemon's fiction will welcome the avowed factuality of "The Book of My Lives" for the additional insight it offers into the author's backstory and motivations. Hemon himself is involved in the game of lowering expectations. "I write fiction because I cannot not do it," he writes, "but I have to be pressed into writing nonfiction."

Even so, there is a neat narrative arc to the collection. The slightly shocking opening tale, "The Lives of Others," describes Hemon's thankfully abortive attempt to choke his baby sister, Kristina, in her crib — a near-fatal expression of sibling rivalry. "She was soft and warm, alive, and I had her existence in my hands," he writes. "I felt her tiny neck under my fingers, I was causing her pain, she was squirming for life." Love triumphs over hate, and the 4-year-old Hemon relinquishes his grip. But he has the insight that "never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others."

The utterly devastating (and National Magazine Award-winning) closing story, "The Aquarium," is another tale of an infant struggling for life. This time Hemon, her father, is a helpless ally, completely engaged in that struggle. In 2010, 9-month-old Isabel, the younger daughter of Hemon and his wife Teri, is diagnosed with a "highly malignant and exceedingly rare" cancer. Even its name, atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, inspires terror.

With her parents hovering nearby, Isabel undergoes uncomfortable tests, a harsh chemotherapy regimen and a seemingly endless series of surgical interventions. Rather than prolong her life, all this concentrated medical attention appears, in the end, mostly to prolong her suffering. But it would be churlish to blame the grieving parents for trying every available procedure, however brutal and ultimately futile.

The story's title, "The Aquarium," is a metaphor for the separation that the Hemons feel from the rest of the world while Isabel's fate hangs in the balance. As Hemon puts it: "I had an intensely physical sensation of being inside an aquarium: I could see outside, the people outside could see me inside (if they somehow chose to pay attention), but we lived and breathed in entirely different environments."

A related motif in the story is the general indifference to tragedy that is the subject of W.H. Auden's celebrated poem, "Musée des Beaux Arts." Hemon slyly quotes Auden, noting that in the world outside the hospital "the torturer's horse kept scratching its innocent behind on a tree." Meanwhile, Ella, the Hemons' older daughter, missing her sister, invents a metaphor of her own — an enterprising brother named Mingus who will survive Isabel and, Ella says, can make her reappear. The effect is heartbreaking.

No other story in the collection, including tales of dogs threatened by war, chess as an expression of love and community, and full-throttle immigrant soccer, attains a comparable emotional intensity. But there are other unforgettable portraits and passages.

Hemon recounts, in "The Book of My Life," how his university literature professor, Nikola Koljevic, a brilliant proponent of ahistorical New Criticism, allied himself with the genocidal Serbian regime and presided over the burning of the Sarajevo library. Because of this professor, an eloquent English-speaking apologist for Serbian atrocities, Hemon notes that "my writing is infused with testy impatience for bourgeois babbling, regrettably tainted with helpless rage I cannot be rid of."

In "Kennel Life," Hemon chronicles his first marriage, to a woman he names L. — a tempestuous union whose chief goal became simply "not-fighting." The marriage ends with "the heavy-footed dance of dissolution," and he punishes himself by renting — and refusing to leave — a studio apartment that reeks of "rank cat litter … fetid coffee, a whiff of weak disinfectant … cheap dog food." The smells, which emanate from his landlady's canine-cluttered abode, are astonishingly vivid. And Hemon is saved only when he meets his second wife, Teri.

Come to think of it, the Hemon of this collection seems perpetually to be ricocheting between disaster and redemption. He is torn between a muted guilt at his abandonment of friends and family in the besieged Old World and gratitude for his own escape to the new one, recapitulating the history of immigrants before him. In "The Book of My Lives," Hemon invites readers to savor both his émigré triumphs and his émigré pain — an invitation worth seizing.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

"The Book of My Lives"

By Aleksandar Hemon, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 214 pages, $25


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