The Book of My Lives
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