In some ways, the 15 nonfiction pieces in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives resemble the short stories in the author’s 2009 collection Love and Obstacles: the two books share settings—Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia, and Chicago—and explore geographic and cultural dislocation. But where you had to tease the autobiographical elements out of the former volume, the essays here, some of which first appeared in the New Yorker, save you the trouble. In The Book of My Lives, Hemon’s exploration of identity is rich with psychological undertones. He’ll burrow into a psyche—often his own, but occasionally someone else’s—then clamber out with an armful of longings, neuroses, and fears.
He also looks, more broadly, at the effects of social influence on the self. “The Lives of Others” examines how, as Hemon and his childhood friends in Sarajevo grew older, their loyalty was refocused from the neighborhood clique to “an abstraction-based herd”: the nation. In “The Lives of a Flaneur,” which straddles Sarajevo and Chicago, the author urgently sets about familiarizing himself with his new hometown, where he moved in 1992 at the age of 28, living in Ukrainian Village before moving to Edgewater. The more that Serb militias pummel a besieged Sarajevo, the faster Hemon must make Chicago his own.
“If my mind and my city were the same thing then I was losing my mind,” he writes. “Converting Chicago into my personal space became not just metaphysically essential but psychiatrically urgent as well.” The next piece, “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago,” is a list of just that: it includes the elusive and perhaps apocryphal Hyde Park parakeets (“the possibility that they are made-up makes the whole thing even better”), and concludes with Hemon stating his conviction that “if Chicago was good enough for Studs Terkel to spend a lifetime in it, it is good enough for me.”
“The Lives of Grandmasters,” the only previously unpublished piece in this collection, chronicles Hemon’s adventures with chess, the significance of which receded, he found, as he became more comfortable writing in English—”another way to organize my interiority.” There are also entertaining and surprisingly poignant entries about the importance of dogs and soccer in Hemon’s life, and an engaging piece on the failure of his first marriage and the road to his successful second one.
The most intriguing and disturbing stories, though, concern the rabid nationalism of many Serbs during the Yugoslav wars—particularly their hatred of Bosnian Muslims, which resulted in wholesale slaughter. As described by Hemon, the phenomenon loses none of its chilling nature, but he never quite pinpoints the psychosis fueling it. Serb nationalists’ rage toward Muslims resembled that of the predominantly Maronite militias during the Lebanese civil war, and the anti-Sunni fury of the Alawite-dominated Syrian army and “shabbiha” militias today. The violence of these groups also stands out when compared to that of their enemies. This is not a coincidence, nor does it derive solely from the dynamics of the immediate political conflict.
The key factor is inherited hatred. Historically, Maronites, Serbs, and Alawites were oppressed minorities. Even after they’d freed themselves, carefully nurtured resentments were passed on from one generation to the next. Serb nationalists in the 1990s hadn’t lived—let alone suffered—through Ottoman Turkish rule, but they nevertheless considered themselves victims. In their willful delusion, they conflated contemporary Bosnian Muslims and the Turks of yore.
Hemon grazes this crucial issue, but he never plunges into it. Take those stories in which ethno-religious hatred makes a fleeting appearance. In “The Lives of Others,” Hemon quotes the Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic’s description of his entry into Srebrenica, where his men would commit genocide—”This is the latest victory in a five-hundred-year-long war against the Turks”—but fails to break down the thinking behind such a ludicrous statement. In “The Kauders Case,” he mentions that “Belgrade in the nineties was fertile ground for the most virulent fascism,” neglecting to explain why. Even those pieces devoted to the Yugoslav conflict are exasperating. “Let There Be What Cannot Be” probes the mind-set of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (who, along with Mladic, is on trial at the Hague for war crimes), but focuses on his megalomania. And “The Book of My Life,” about Hemon’s college literature professor, never goes beyond the scholarly exterior to reveal the man’s motivations for joining Karadzic.
The volume closes with “The Aquarium,” Hemon’s heart-wrenching account of his baby daughter Isabel’s brain cancer; she died, at just over one year old, in late 2010, and the book is dedicated to her. The title of the piece refers to Hemon’s disoriented feeling while Isabel was sick: “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.”
The Hemon portrayed in “The Aquarium” is a man whose bouts of desperation are interspersed with moments of lucidity and piercing insight. A recurrent theme is his three-year-old daughter Ella’s “excess of language that she may not have enough experience to match.” Her solution? She creates an imaginary brother, whom she grants the privilege of visiting California, but whom she also afflicts with a tumor that will vanish in two weeks—”California” and “tumor” having recently been added to her lexicon. “While our world was being reduced to the claustrophobic size of ceaseless dread,” Hemon observes of his wife and himself, “Ella’s world was expanding.”
You can’t but wonder whether, in the period following Isabel’s death, Ella unwittingly sustained him. Bereft of a child, he considers life scarcely worth living—except for those moments when he sees the daughter who remains continue to experience the joy of a fertile imagination and infinite streams of new words. Slowly, he begins to recover.