And Darkness Comes: On Aleksandar Hemon
Hemon does not say explicitly that he thinks New Criticism led Koljevic to thoughts of genocide, and there’s no way to know the truth of it. Koljevic’s interest in New Criticism—a critical ethos that involves the calculated subordination of human feeling—may well have inspired his “genocidal proclivities,” but it may simply have reflected the inclinations he already had, or it may have had nothing to do with anything. It is the structure of the essay that makes the analogy plain, and that’s fine, because the essay is more about Hemon than it is about Koljevic. “Now it seems clear to me,” Hemon writes, “that his evil had far more influence on me than his literary vision. I excised and exterminated that precious, youthful part of me that had believed you could retreat from history and hide from evil in the comforts of art.” It’s because of his professor, Hemon thinks, that his own “writing is infused with testy impatience for bourgeois babbling, regrettably tainted with helpless rage I cannot be rid of.”
The truth of Professor Koljevic’s motives is forever inaccessible and in some sense also irrelevant. The kind of truth Hemon strives for in “The Book of My Life” is a personal truth, the truth as he needs to understand it. The same can be said of the other essays in the collection. It doesn’t matter that these pieces are ostensibly nonfiction and that his previous work is ostensibly fiction. Fiction and nonfiction are equally contrived, and because writing is about representing the subjective human experience of the world far more than setting down the “facts” about it, the distinction is rarely as important as it seems. If Hemon believes that Radovan Karadzic was driven to great evil by the need to enact a Serbian epic poem, that belief is a kind of truth. It is Hemon’s truth.
Writing is a way to organize and systematize a personal truth of this kind, but sometimes it’s also a way to discover that personal truth—a way of thinking. The final essay in The Books of My Lives is Hemon’s account of his infant daughter’s losing battle with brain cancer, and although it is not about the war, it is certainly an attempt to make sense of a senseless thing: how a part of Hemon’s world reverted to chaos. “Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—is a basic evolutional tool of survival,” he writes. “We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.” He says that his daughter’s illness and death were so awful that he “could not write a story that would help [him] comprehend what was happening,” and no doubt this is true—but it is a story about submitting to rage and pain, and its uncompromising anger is very moving. “Isabel’s suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world,” Hemon continues. “We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anybody.” But he did write the essay, and perhaps he felt compelled to do so because he hoped it would make the tragedy less incomprehensible, or, failing that, would make his own rage at chaos less intolerable.
Then again, maybe he wrote the essay because he could not do otherwise. We tell stories all the time, whether they help us to understand what’s happening or not. Hemon says in “The Lives of Grandmasters” that writing is a way to “organize [his] interiority,” but it’s more than that; stories are the very stuff of interiority. We tell them to ourselves all the time in order to be who we are and to grapple with the terror of what we might become. When we tell stories about death—that it isn’t the end, or that it is—all those stories are the same, and all of them are true.
In “An Enduring Condition: On Wartime” (May 28, 2012), Peter Maas reviewed Mary L. Dudziak’s War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences and John Horgan’s The End of War.