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.
A fascinating section early in this book describes a youthful indiscretion – a birthday party mocked up to resemble a Nazi cocktail party in the 1940s – which descends into a Kafkaesque hell for Hemon, with newspaper articles denouncing the teenager, friends turning their backs on him, and a state security investigation leading to apartment searches and we-have-ways-of-
making-you-talk-type grillings. It's the stuff of claustrophobic political novels, but the inherent drama is muted somewhat by the brevity of the account. (Decisions such as this utterly perplexed me until I reached the end of the book, where I realised that this is not, in fact, an entirely new work but a collection gathered from no less than 15 previous publications; suddenly the discord made sense.)
Despite this, there are passages that are a joy to read. In a section in which he spends long stretches on a mountain named Jahorina, 30km from Sarajevo, with no company other than his dog Mec and a suitcase full of books, Hemon makes an impassioned case for the emotional importance of reading. “Solitary reading cleared my cluttered mind . . . the hurt was somehow healed by the ubiquitous smell of pine, by the high-altitude air crispness, by the morning angle of mountain light . . . The self-imposed austerity remedied whatever pain I’d carried up to the mountain.”
Similarly, his account of the rise, domination and subsequent fall of many of the political figures from his youth – Miloševic, Karadzic, Mladic – each of whom is suffixed by the phrase “now on trial in the Hague”, is an intriguing, if all too brief, insight into some of the most appalling perpetrators of genocide on the European continent since the end of the second World War.
However, the flaws lie in the sections that feel surplus to the book’s requirements. A lengthy piece on his childhood interest in chess feels like filler and is neither particularly interesting nor engaging, certainly not when placed between the turbulent times described in the earlier chapters and the tragedy that lies, most unexpectedly, in the closing pages. (Its placement in the book is, in fact, utterly confusing.)
Hemon claims that his writing is "regrettably tainted with helpless rage I cannot be rid of". This is a high and arrogant claim to make for one's own work and, while possibly true of his earlier books, it is just not the case here. The Book of My Lives is not a rage-fuelled book, it is simply a disjointed one, with individual pieces that might very likely have worked well in their original journalistic publications but which hang uncomfortably together in book form and ultimately lack the depth or profundity that the author's reputation would lead readers to expect.
John Boyne 's eighth novel, This House Is Haunted , will be published by Doubleday on April 25th.