Review: The Book of My Lives, By Aleksandar Hemon

Sarajevo is no longer his kind of town

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The Independent Culture

'I was 27 (and a half) and Sarajevo belonged to me," Aleksandar Hemon says of the city he left in 1992, just before Serbian forces began the siege that lasted nearly four years. Hemon was as unprepared for catastrophe as any other young man who'd spent his youth listening to David Bowie and writing poetry. At the outbreak of civil war in the former Yugoslavia, he was travelling in America, where he then claimed asylum and has lived ever since. By the time he revisited the Bosnian capital, where he found personal and cultural landmarks destroyed, he'd built another life: "The Chicago I came back to belonged to me. Returning from home, I returned home."

The Book of My Lives is a memoir in connected essays, wrenching but often very funny and self-deprecating too. "There is always a story … more heart-breaking and compelling than yours," Hemon says. He remembers calling a schoolfriend "Turk", unaware that it was a racist term for a Bosnian Muslim which Ratko Mladic would use at Sebrenica. "Now I don't know where he is or what happened to him," Hemon says of his friend. As a naïve and rebellious student, he attends what's supposed to be an ironic Nazi-themed birthday party and is bemused when communist police interrogate him afterwards. Later, however, the party organiser becomes a fascist and dates a Serbian war criminal. "Maybe the fascist party had been concocted by her fascist part, obscure to me," Hemon says, confused by the portent that now infects his pre-war memories.

In Chicago, he does menial jobs, and plays football and chess with fellow immigrants. He misses Sarajevo's "geography of the soul", but beginning to write in English is a "way to organise my interiority so that I could retreat into it and populate it with words." Two decades later, he's the author of acclaimed stories which make us try to imagine what it feels like to lose almost everything and begin a new life in an alien place. In this book, loving, humorous accounts of family, friends and pets have the potential to expand our compassion towards the strangers who live among us.

Hemon is interested in the ways that we use narrative and language to negotiate trauma. An Assyrian friend's misery at the hands of brutal governments exposes the "shortage of words for all the horrible things that happened in the world". When Isabel, Hemon's baby daughter, suffers a brain tumour, he invokes W H Auden on pain and indifference, as the rest of humanity continues to move "dully along". Isolated, as Sarajevo was under siege, Hemon and his wife "instinctively protected other people from the knowledge we possessed; we let them think that words failed". As doctors try to save her, "people unknown to me are rooting for Isabel, some of them in tears." The reader of this extraordinary book is one of them.