Aleksandar Hemon’s Kaleidoscopic Fiction of War and Peace

Aleksandar Hemon’s Kaleidoscopic Fiction of War and Peace

Living Ghosts

Aleksandar Hemon’s kaleidoscopic fiction of war and peace.


If Americans remember one thing about Sarajevo, it’s that the city was besieged for almost four years during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. If they know a second thing, it’s that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated there in 1914, lighting the fuse for the First World War. Born in Sarajevo in 1964, Aleksandar Hemon spent the first part of his literary career coming to terms with the more recent tragedy, writing novels and stories that dramatized his own experience as a Bosnian exile in the United States.

Now, in The World and All That It Holds—Hemon’s first novel since 2015, and his biggest in size and historical sweep—he turns to the earlier tragedy. The story of a Bosnian doctor swept up in the Great War and its aftermath, The World and All That It Holds naturally includes many scenes of violence and suffering. Oddly, however, it ends up feeling less challenging than Hemon’s earlier, more autobiographical work, which is set far from the battlefield and deals with the psychological complexities of emigration. The World and All That It Holds, by contrast, reads like a historical romance novel, in which even misery can’t escape becoming picturesque, and a succession of historic horrors serves to reinforce the message that all you need is love.

Hemon’s own story has been told in many profiles and interviews over the past quarter-century. He arrived in the United States at the beginning of 1992 on an exchange program for young journalists, able to speak English but not yet write it. Yugoslavia had already begun to break apart, and in April of that year Serbian forces besieged Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, shelling civilians from the hills around the city. Suddenly, Hemon found himself stuck in Chicago as a refugee with no money and no job. Cut off indefinitely from his native language and readership, he taught himself English over the course of three years, and he soon became one of America’s leading young fiction writers, publishing two novels and two collections of stories in the first decade of the new century. Hemon has received a Guggenheim and a MacArthur fellowship, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and now teaches creative writing at Princeton.

It is only when you turn to his work that you get a sense of the toll of Hemon’s heroic transformation. His 2002 novel Nowhere Man: The Pronek Fantasies moves from Chicago to Sarajevo to Kiev, then back to Chicago, before ending with a surprise coda in Shanghai. It is largely about a Bosnian refugee named Jozef Pronek, but the outlines of Pronek’s story blur together with those of Hemon himself and with yet a third narrator, named Victor. Pronek is a “Nowhere Man” not just because life takes him across the globe, and not just because he played in a Beatles cover band as a teenager, but because we don’t know quite where to look for him in his own novel. Even Pronek doesn’t know. At the end of the novel, he gets into a fight with his American girlfriend, who can’t understand his sudden rage. “I love you! What did I do to you?” she cries. In response, he starts “ripping his pajamas apart, the buttons flying like ricocheted bullets,” and banging his chest “as if trying to break it open” while shouting at her: “You want to see me? You want to see the real me? Here! Here!” It’s like something a ghost would say while trying to prove that he is tangible, even as he fears he actually isn’t.

The work that followed was suffused with a similar anxiety. In his 2008 novel The Lazarus Project, Hemon projected himself into two protagonists separated by a century. One is Vladimir Brik, a Hemon-like novelist who introduces himself as “a reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries,” a Bosnian native who now lives in “America—that somber land” and whose marriage to a level-headed American woman dissolves under the pressure of his writerly bohemianism and immigrant resentments. The other main character is a real-life historical figure, Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant who was shot dead by Chicago’s chief of police in 1908 on suspicion of being an anarchist assassin. The points of connection between Brik and Averbuch are clear enough: Both are immigrants undone by America, one by violence, the other by love. As in Nowhere Man, however, the doubling blurred the novel’s shape. The 21st-century plot was bitterly satirical, the 20th-century plot sanctimoniously political, and neither seemed sure of where it wanted to end up.

This uncertainty made Hemon a perfect writer for the early 21st century, when literary fiction was turning the classic immigrant tale inside out. Stories of immigration have always acknowledged the heavy toll of forging a new American identity. In Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, the Jewish father becomes violently insane in New York City; in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, the Czech father commits suicide in Nebraska. But in these stories, whatever the price paid by the parents, the children are destined to grow up as Americans. In the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Gary Shteyngart, by contrast, Americanization isn’t guaranteed or even desirable. These writers don’t draw a clear distinction between immigration, which aims at creating a new identity, and exile, which remains oriented toward the old one. That is certainly the case in Hemon’s fiction, which makes sense for a writer who became an American more by accident than by choice. In The Lazarus Project, Brik can’t help resenting his American wife, Mary, whose confidence and competence are a birthright he can never share: “I told her that to be American you have to know nothing and understand even less, and that I did not want to be American. Never, I said.”

Hemon’s early novels, along with his 2009 story collection Love and Obstacles, attempted to come to fictional terms with the rupture and rebirth that defined his own life. Having worked through this central experience, he largely turned away from fiction in the 2010s. Hemon published just one novel in the ensuing decade: The Making of Zombie Wars, a comedy about an aspiring screenwriter who teaches English as a second language. He would also go on to cowrite the screenplay for The Matrix Resurrections, the 2021 sequel to the sci-fi trilogy.

The protagonist of The Making of Zombie Wars, Joshua Levin, bears a looser relationship to Hemon than his earlier alter egos did, but it’s notable that, like Lazarus Averbuch, he is Jewish. Hemon is not, but it is understandable why a writer whose themes are exile, alienation, and the violent history of Eastern Europe would use Jewish characters to explore his own freighted past. Thus, in The Lazarus Project, Hemon dramatized the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, the notorious massacre that drove Lazarus Averbuch to America, rather than writing about, say, the 1995 massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

In The World and All That It Holds, Hemon’s protagonist is again Jewish. When we first meet Rafael Pinto, he is running an apothecary shop in the Bosnian capital, an old family business where magical herbs are still for sale alongside modern medicines. Pinto, too, is trapped between two eras. While his vocabulary is peppered with the Ladino words used by his Sephardic Jewish ancestors, he writes poetry in German and pines for his medical school days in Vienna, where life was modern and free—above all, sexually. Pinto is not only Jewish; he is gay, and in Vienna there were plenty of opportunities for him to indulge what he calls his jetzer hara—the Hebrew term for “evil impulse,” one of many foreign phrases Hemon uses without translating. Stuck in provincial Sarajevo, Pinto muses, “Oh, we could live so much better!”

But it doesn’t take long for Pinto to learn that, as Hemon writes in the opening paragraph, “it could be much worse, this world and all that it holds.” Leaving his shop in pursuit of a handsome soldier, Pinto finds himself in the thick of a crowd gathered to see the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and becomes an eyewitness to the assassination: “The shots rang, louder than a cannon salvo, and then the world exploded.” Soon he finds himself serving as a medic in the Austro-Hungarian Army, where he is “fully cured of the desire to write poetry. Once you had to scrub brains off your hands, once you saw a man shit himself to death, once you put your finger inside a man’s neck up to your second knuckle to stop him from bleeding to death, the passion for poetry evaporates like a tear in the sun,” Hemon writes.

Like many of the aphorisms and musings in the novel, this sounds impressive but isn’t built to withstand scrutiny; in fact, some of the most famous poems of the period were written about precisely such experiences. Again, when Pinto sees a dead man on the battlefield, he muses, “Everything that lives wants to keep on living. But why? Why not die right now? Why keep going?” The old question doesn’t prompt any new insights, just as the novel’s brooding on God’s providence doesn’t get any further than “You cannot fathom my rules,” which Job learned long ago.

Pinto concludes that the universe is nothing but la gran eskuridad—“the great darkness” in Ladino—“into which we were spilled, alive, to die.” Fortunately, he finds one light in that darkness: his fellow soldier Osman, with whom he falls instantly and rapturously in love. Not for a moment does Hemon try to convince us that he is writing about a relationship that could have plausibly existed between two men in a crowded trench under conditions of constant misery and terror. Rather, this is a Hollywood romance, in which Pinto and Osman say things like “As long as I live you will never be cold again” and “I want to live with you. Other than that, I have no reason to be alive,” between stolen kisses and nights of passionate lovemaking.

Theirs is a love more powerful than death—literally. After being parted and then reunited, which take the lovers from the battlefield to a POW camp in Tashkent, Osman finally disappears for good in the chaos of the Russian Civil War. Pinto assumes he is dead, yet he continues to hear Osman’s voice in moments of danger or despair, telling him things like “It’s not your time to go yet.” “Osman’s voice, calm and loving, would guide him through all the difficulties and troubles,” Pinto reflects.

The lovers also remain connected by Rahela, a daughter conceived by Osman with a woman he meets in Tashkent. She falls into Pinto’s custody as an infant, and he cherishes her as a link to the man he loved, keeping her alive during a years-long trek from Central Asia to Shanghai. By the time World War II brings a new round of dangers and partings, Rahela is grown up enough to fall in love herself, though Pinto fears she is making a big mistake by going for that most detestable of creatures, a rich American—whom Hemon describes as rather more villainous than any of the novel’s violent Cossacks. Father and daughter are parted by World War II, but afterward Rahela returns to extricate Pinto from Shanghai, promising to take him back to Sarajevo at last. Pinto dies on the ship carrying him home, but it is a sweet death, lulled by the reappearance of Osman’s loving ghost.

In The Lazarus Project, Hemon told the stories of the present and the past side by side. In The World and All It Holds, he tries to merge them, with odd results. While much of the action takes place in Eastern Europe and Central Asia a century ago, some of the novel’s themes are conspicuously contemporary. Meanwhile, the epic scope and melodramatic plot hark back to an earlier age of popular fiction, when novels like Gone With the Wind and Forever Amber used history as a grand backdrop for stories of romance and survival. The result is much more colorful and wider in scope than the books that made Hemon’s name, but The World and All It Holds also feels less characteristic and insightful. It’s a trade-off that Hemon seems to have made willingly, as he writes in a brief first-person coda: “All I could ever do about the past, or any experience that was not immediately mine, was to imagine it and then dare tell stories about it, but only if I accept the inevitable failure of the project, because history is a matter of experience, of being, and not a structure, not a story.”

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