“Two intimately realised memoirs ” – This Does Not Belong to You / My Parents by Alexander Hemon

A collection of photographs separates This Does Not Belong to You from My Parents: An Introduction. If, like me, you begin with My Parents, you are greeted with two images of Petar and Andja Hemon on their wedding day opposite the final page of text. Conversely, the picture opposite the end of This Does Not Belong to You is of Petar and Andja in their later years. These two photographic pages, serving as the beginning or the end of an album depending on which work you are following, serve as a key visual narrative element. They show the reader that these works are about two different incarnations of Petar and Andja Hemon: This Does Not Belong to You presents Alexander Hemon’s vision of his parents as he sees them in the background of his own memories, all at once stubborn and frustrating, but adored, while My Parents: An Introduction ends with Peter and Andja as they see themselves within their own minds, nostalgic for youth, and for their forever irretrievable pre-war Bosnian lifestyle.

My Parents: An Introduction is something of a showcase, memories written and spoken to Hemon by his Mama and Tata largely concerning their lives together in Sarajevo, and their refusal to leave the world they grew up and prospered in behind during the Bosnian war. With a narrative voice reminiscent of a particularly gifted campfire storyteller, Hemon injects colour into these recollections, which are compiled not chronologically, although there is a vague passing of time, but thematically. We learn about Petar and Andja through their relationships with books, music, nature, and those little familial sayings which only make sense to those in the inner circle. We hear of Andja’s reading habits, her unintentional philosophising, and of Petar’s constant building of beehives and smokehouses and workshops filled to brimming with still more ideas.

Particularly illuminating was the chapter on food. I’ve never put much importance into the idea of families eating together – it was always something that we did in our own rooms, at our own times. Now, every week I go with my Polish-Italian partner to eat with his entire immediate family in a home full of noise and heaping plates of pasta, which his father has grown so sick of that he prepares his own meat and potato dinner separately. He continues to make pasta because it pleases everyone else. I finished the food chapter with all of this in mind, and with a sentimental sort of smile on my face, one worn by someone who has discovered the truth hiding behind a previously incomprehensible quirk. The culture surrounding food within Hemon’s family, perhaps within many Eastern European families, is not a display of wealth, or of worldly knowledge. It is simply a time for busy families to come together and enjoy something familiar. Their bond is strengthened by their proximity to this meal, one which has been eaten in only slightly different ways for generations. The changes to these dishes, however small, have all been internal. As Hemon says, food “carries love.” (Page 98) This, perhaps, is why during their anniversary dinner Petar Hemon is dismissive of the haute cuisine put in front of him at an expensive restaurant. At least, as Hemon writes, “[Grandmother’s pickled cabbage] is ontologically stable – that is, they know what it is and what it means.” (Page 89) It was this chapter, this love letter to dinner time, where the family became a truly living entity for me. They ceased to become names embossed onto the pages of a memoir, and came to possess vitality.

This Does Not Belong to You is a very different creature to My Parents. It is more disjointed in its narrative, more like a compilation than a chronology. Some strands are linked to each other, but only tenuously, and sometimes come so far apart that it takes a few sentences to realise that they are related to one another. While My Parents is calm, almost objective, This Does Not Belong to You trembles with adolescent anger. These extracts are more emotionally than informatively driven, focusing more on capturing the undercurrent of frustrated, hormonal isolation endured by a younger Aleksandar Hemon. Consequently, This Does Not Belong to You possesses a more distinct narrative voice than My Parents. Its segments may be shorter and lacking in an immediately apparent sense of progression, but this is augmented by Hemon’s clever, stylish prose, where each sentence is written as if through gritted teeth. Rather than create a story-driven timeline, its purpose is to express the emotional instability of childhood powerlessness, and it serves this purpose well.

Being combined in one single, reversible edition enables comparison between these two works, elevating their contents still further than if they were perused separately. The intensity of This Does Not Belong to You, being very much concerned with present emotions, compliments the more detached retrospection of My Parents. We may not get to hear the inner frustrations of Petar and Andja in the same way as we hear Aleksandar’s, but it is enough to read, from the pen of their progeny, of their ability to rebuild after the devastation of war annihilated their former life. Hemon documents the almost pastoral existence which his parents have created for themselves, complete with beekeeping, self-made smokehouses and workshops, and chattering to animals. There is, however, a beautifully executed sadness which quietly lingers beneath this tale of familial success. With all of the pride which Hemon feels, and causes the reader to feel, in his parents, comes a companion in the form of an acknowledgement that their yearning for their lost homeland will never waver. These two narratives concern the people, the families, who must continue to live their lives after the displacement of war renders everything which they have built until that point irretrievable. This Does Not Belong to You exhibits this loss through the confused, fervent emotion of the young, meanwhile My Parents presents the perspective of the adult, who has no choice but to watch all of their progress disintegrate:

““Before the war,” Tata says, “our life project was to secure some kind of future in which we could live better. But now we’re only securing the present.”” (Page 168)

Any Cop?: My Parents: An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You are two intimately realised memoirs which, as counterparts, comprise a family portrait.

 

Amy Riddell

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