Words shine

The Book of My Lives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Maria Tu­markin

By Alek­san­dar He­mon Pi­cador, 256pp, $32.99

IN Alek­san­dar He­mon’s first watch­ingy­our­self-from-out­side-of-your­self mem­ory, he is try­ing to stran­gle his baby sis­ter in their Sara­jevo kitchen. He­mon is not quite five. Un­til his sis­ter’s ar­rival the world was his. Now she is here, per­ma­nently, at the cen­tre of things. As Alek­san­dar is press­ing on Kristina’s wind­pipe, he dis­cov­ers he loves her. Ter­ror and love flood him at once. He pulls back, the baby screams. Mother runs in and un­does the dam­age. He­mon lies his way out of trou­ble, it’s a happy end.

It’s just right, this story: love and clar­ity emerge un­ex­pect­edly, over­whelm­ingly, at a point of bru­tal­ity that does not come from out­side of our­selves.

Fic­tion, says He­mon, is some­thing he can­not not write. With non­fic­tion he has ‘‘ to be pressed into writ­ing’’. And, yes, at times The Book of My Lives doesn’t feel like He­mon’s books usu­ally feel, as if they un­ques­tion­ingly had to be writ­ten. This is a book of es­says pulled to­gether. Still, I would read it over a thou­sand oth­ers.

In mid-1991 Yu­goslavia was un­rav­el­ling, Croa­tia was in the throes of full-blown war, Bos­nia looked to be next and He­mon, then 27, was cul­ture edi­tor of a bi­weekly Sara­je­van mag­a­zine. While the ship was sink­ing he and his peers em­barked on ‘‘ ti­tanic sex’’, sup­ple­ment­ing it with a whole lot of danc­ing into the night and jolly sub­stance abuse.

‘‘ The in­sti­tu­tion of dat­ing,’’ he writes, ‘‘ seemed in­def­i­nitely sus­pended.’’ Then came war in Septem­ber. ‘‘ And now we were all wait­ing to see who would live, who would kill, and who would die.’’

When Bos­nian Serb troops sur­rounded Sara­jevo the fol­low­ing April, cut­ting it off from the world, He­mon was in the US by fluke, on a cul­tural ex­change pro­gram. A lucky es­cape? Not re­ally. Not at all. To be stranded in Chicago must have been a sin­gu­lar kind of hell for a ‘‘ mil­i­tant Sara­je­van’’ who thought his city ‘‘ a beau­ti­ful, im­mor­tal thing’’, a to­tally sov­er­eign thing too (you hear peo­ple talk in th­ese terms — a city apart — about Ber­lin or New York).

At 1395 days, the siege of Sara­jevo is the long­est in mod­ern his­tory. He­mon’s par­ents and sis­ter man­aged to get out, even­tu­ally wind­ing up in Canada. His friends were still there. He knew bet­ter than to try to con­sole them.

By now you may want to know about his eth­nic­ity. Was He­mon a Bos­nian Mus­lim? A Bos­nian Serb? Some ex­plo­sive mix, per­haps? This ques­tion fol­lows peo­ple from the for­mer Yu­goslavia like a bad smell. We have the nerve

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