The Book of My Lives is Aleksandar Hemon’s first actual memoir – a collection of essays in which he recounts what it was like to grow up in Sarajevo, how his parents made their livings, adventures in Brussels after he and his family were stranded there on their way to Africa, his father’s wallet stolen, possibly by a hotel clerk; there are short essays on family dinners, longer pieces on Hemon’s nascent literary leanings as part of a juvenile art group (an endeavour that culminated with a party in which a group of silly boys and girls dressed as Nazis and earned themselves countrywide approbation); there are glimpses into family life as war began, the effects of a military blitzkrieg on family pets, the shock of being stranded in America and dealing with immigrant displacement. In amongst all of these pieces, there is some beautiful writing – ‘Reasons why I do not wish to leave Chicago’ for instance which includes reminiscences (reminiscences that could well have felt like reminiscences as they were experienced firsthand):
‘The American vastness of the Wilson Street beach, gulls and kits coasting above it, dogs sprinting along the jagged waves, barking into the void, city kids doing homemade drugs, blind to the distant ships on their mysterious ways from Liverpool, England to Gary, Indiana.’
There are bittersweet reflections on returning to a Sarajevo that is both changed, irrevocably, and utterly the same; later we see him hunched over a computer screen, staring at newspaper photographs from far away trying to understand the place he left behind. His family eventually follow and settle in Canada and Hemon ruminates on how the displaced are forever displaced, never of a place, always learning, bitterly rejecting commonplace traditions of their new homeland, the paupers at the window. There is a terrific piece, running to a mere four of five pages in which he shares with us his relationship with a respectable professor who goes on to become a terrible war criminal, a life that ends in suicide. Vicious angles contort, stories you expect to travel in one direction quickly sheer off in unexpected ways. In amidst the inevitable displacement, there are celebratory articles on football and chess – both of which are worth the price of admission alone, Hemon’s touch always frank, gentle, complex, able to wrest a tragic splinter of heartache from a moment as simple as a father and son playing a game together.
I started reading Hemon from the publication of his debut, The Question of Bruno, a book of short stories that had me reading gape mouthed. I’d liked each subsequent book just a little bit less than the book that preceded it – so Nowhere Man less than Bruno, The Lazarus Project less than Nowhere Man; and the last book of short stories, Love & Obstacles currently sits on my shelf unread. Which isn’t to say that I disliked his subsequent books and more to say that I was wondering if Hemon was maybe becoming a bit Will Self-y (ie ploughing a line that I could respect without actually being interested in reading). The Book of My Lives has set me back on the Hemon track, to the extent that I have taken down Love & Obstacles and it is back on the pile of books that need to be read sooner rather than later. There is never a dull moment. Each essay or article feels like the kind of thing that, if a friend were to share with you, you would sit, over your pint, nodding and feeling convivial. Hemon’s story about this first wife, for instance, which I read not knowing it was his first wife is affecting (‘what a shame,’ I found myself saying to myself as I read, ‘she seemed such a nice girl’).
Just about the only problem with the book (and it is heartbreakingly wrong to even really call it a problem) is that the last essay, in which he and his new family suffer a tragedy, is so painful (painful to read never mind what Hemon and his family went through) that it derails the book through no real fault of its own.The sound of Hemon howling ‘My baby! My baby! My baby!’ retains the power to stop me in my tracks. The book needed something after it, another piece, an epilogue, something to let us know that the people involved found a way through, something that tells us life goes on, even if it doesn’t. The abrupt halt to proceedings leaves you wondering what Hemon will do next. I for one will be waiting to find out.
Any Cop?: Damned with faint praise if I remember correctly on its release, The Books of My Lives is an essential read for anyone who has ever sampled Hemon’s writings.