The Book of my Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon
The best sections of an intermittently interesting memoir deal with the lead-up to the Bosnian war in the early 1990s
The Book of My Lives
S ometime in 2000 I attended a literary event in London where a number of young writers, each of whom was publishing their debut novel that year, was being presented to the book trade. Of the group gathered, the literary editors appeared to be interested only in one, a young Sarajevan named Aleksandar Hemon, whose first book, The Question of Bruno , had garnered a lot of advance praise. Fast-forward 13 years and Hemon is a literary star. His geographical heritage and postwar allure may have afforded him a certain glamour at the outset, but he has justified those early expectations over the course of four books, each one a challenging and experimental blend of fiction, nonfiction and memoir.
The Book of My Lives is Hemon’s first dedicated work of nonfiction, an intermittently interesting collection of memories based on his life growing up in Bosnia, his move to Chicago in his 20s, his personal relationships and his interests. Hemon writes with the confidence and fluidity that make a great storyteller, so it’s something of a shame that the overall collection feels fragmented, with sections that leap dramatically off the page and others that lie flat.
Choosing the greatest opening lines in literature is an entertaining parlour game; rarely do we consider the worst, but a strong case could be made for this book having claim to that unhappy title. “I write fiction because I cannot not do it, but I have to be pressed into writing nonfiction.”
If there was ever a reason to make one feel a sense of foreboding at what is to come, it is surely an author-led dismissal like this. It serves no purpose other than to make readers question why we are bothering to read it at all. It’s rather like buying a novel and the author claiming to have no particular interest in fiction, before saying, “still, let’s give it a bash”.
By far the most interesting sections are those that relate to Hemon’s younger life in the lead-up to the Bosnian war during the early 1990s. His earliest memory is one of selfishness, of resenting his newborn sister and the crowds of relatives and friends who came to see her, “few of whom cared about me”. Between ruminations on otherness and the manner in which we isolate ourselves or insist on our separateness, there are memories of displacement and a child’s sense of wonder at the unknown: a trip to Rome contains a thrilling sense of mystery as well as a strong sense of excited dislocation.
Hemon revels in descriptions of the minutiae of life in Sarajevo; his explanation of the ingredients for the perfect borscht is rather wonderful but becomes a metaphor for so much more. “A perfect borscht is what a life should be but never is . . . The crucial ingredient is a large, hungry family.” Wonderful descriptions of food, hunger in the army and the joy of Hemon’s mother arriving with a feast abound.