When his short-story collection The Question of Bruno was published in 2001, the Sarajevo-born writer Aleksandar Hemon earned enthusiastic comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, which had less to do with the particulars of Hemon’s fiction than with the fact that he began writing in English only after he arrived in the United States at the age of 27. What’s remarkable about Nabokov is his perfect icy fluency in a borrowed language. The joy of Hemon’s English, however, lies in the humor and vitality of its imprecision—its exuberant lack of fluency. His bizarre locutions and unusual sentences make The Question of Bruno a memorable collection of stories, but The Lazarus Project (2008)—his compact, hilarious, enraged novel about returning to Sarajevo after the siege—is one of the great English-language novels of the last two decades. It is a splendidly orchestrated and unconventional performance of rage, a book not about accepting pain and loss, but about letting them darken the rest of your days.
With only a few exceptions, the war in the former Yugoslavia and its transformative effect on the material and metaphysical circumstances of Hemon’s life is also the subject of the essays collected in The Book of My Lives. But his new book is not a book, properly speaking, in its own right. It is what used to be called a volume of occasional writing, and no effort has been made to avoid repetition or to give the collection a shape of its own. Even so, and as occasional and incidental as they are, these essays have a beguiling intimacy and reveal the urgent necessity of writing—not as a vocation but as a way of thinking, of experiencing the world, of explaining how, if not why, the inexplicable could have happened. As Hemon writes, “I have spent time trying to comprehend how everything I had known and loved came violently apart.”
An omission haunts the book. When the siege of Sarajevo began, Hemon was in the United States, on a visit sponsored by the US Information Agency. He planned to be away for a month; he ended up settling permanently in Chicago. There is a story here that he does not tell, and he is uncharacteristically evasive about this important moment. Hemon says that he “had no way of knowing at the time that [he’d] return to [his] hometown only as an irreversibly displaced visitor.” But by his own account, everyone in Bosnia knew that war was coming—at one point Hemon says that it had already arrived—and so he had to have known that he might be gone longer than he planned. Then why doesn’t he say this? He is elsewhere perfectly forthcoming about what he perceives to be his personal failures, so his decision to avoid this issue undermines the tone of the whole book. And there’s no reason for it: Hemon was a 27-year-old man in a terrible situation. How could anyone blame him now if he revealed that he took advantage of the USIA’s invitation in order to make his escape?
In any case, he did miss the war. While his family and friends were struggling for their lives, he was safe in Chicago. The guilt he feels is obviously substantial—it is one of the central themes of The Lazarus Project—but guilt is not all. There is also anxiety. In the space of a month, Hemon went from being a young intellectual from cosmopolitan Sarajevo to being a refugee who had lost his language, his city, his country and his culture, though without witnessing the event that transformed his life. For this reason, the war seems to retain an intangible, almost conjectural character, as if the loss it entails is partly an act of imagination. If Hemon has since been “busy obsessively parsing the details of the catastrophe to understand how it could have taken place,” maybe he’s also been trying to convince himself that it really did take place.
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Hemon tells the story of the war and of his own displacement in many different ways, but one always suspects that he’s telling this story to himself, shaping it and reshaping it in the hope that it may yield a kernel of sense. In “The Lives of a Flaneur,” in which he meditates on the loss of Sarajevo, he frames the story in geographical terms—as a tale of dislocation in the literal sense of the word. There is a chilling passage in which he describes volunteering at the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University, where he was shown photos of ruined buildings in Sarajevo and asked to note their locations. The task “felt very much like identifying corpses.” He says earlier that he’d come to think of Sarajevo as an extension of his own mind. “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.”
In “Let There Be What Cannot Be,” by contrast, he frames the story of the war in literary terms: as a Serbian epic poem come to life. Hemon argues that Radovan Karadzic, who co-founded the Serbian Democratic Party and presided over various atrocities of the war, was enacting a fantasy inspired by Petar II Petrovic-Njegos’s The Mountain Wreath. Afterward, while hiding in Belgrade before his capture, “Karadzic frequented a bar called Mad House,” and there he is said to have “performed an epic poem in which he himself featured as the main hero, undertaking feats of extermination.” Hemon sees a “Shakespeare-for-Idiots lesson” in his story. “His true and only home was the hell he created for others…. It was only during the war, performing on a blood-soaked stage, that he could fully develop his inhuman potential.”
Other essays tell the story differently. “Dog Lives,” which immediately follows the Karadzic essay, is about the family dog, Mek, who survives the war and travels to Canada with Hemon’s parents and sister; it is a story of what survives, against all odds and when so much else is lost. “The Lives of Grandmasters” is about chess, which Hemon played with his father as a boy and began playing again in Chicago as a refugee. The game, with its strict boundaries and immutable rules, is a constant against which other changes can be measured. When he visits his parents, he reflects that “everything we did together in Canada reminded us of what we used to do together in Bosnia. Hence we didn’t like doing any of it, but had nothing else to do.” Chess is the same and not the same. He beats his father for the first time but finds “no pleasure in it,” and the two of them “never again [play] against each other.”
The story of a madman dragging his country to ruin because of an infatuation with epic poetry is compelling, but essays like “The Lives of Grandmasters” emphasize the private nature of this collection. “Let There Be What Cannot Be” is a story of evil and despair, but it is not reportage; it is a personal essay, and the explanation it provides ought to be understood primarily as the way that Hemon himself has come to understand the war. The distinction is important, and never so much so as in “The Book of My Life,” which is about Nikola Koljevic, Hemon’s former literature professor. Koljevic—whose “patron saint” was the New Critic Cleanth Brooks—taught a course in which students analyzed “the inherent properties of a piece of literature, disregarding politics, biography, or anything external to the text.” During the war, he became one of Radovan Karadzic’s closest associates.
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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.