“And who are you?” she asked…and then he told her who he was, with fatigued detachment, as if retelling the plot of a tedious Eastern European movie.
The 1970s and 1980s were a golden period for many young people in Yugoslavia. The universities and some high schools were first-rate. Cultural life was flourishing in the cities. The same plays and movies one saw in Western capitals were being shown there. The young read contemporary European and American literature, listened to rock music and the blues, and occasionally traveled abroad. Literary weeklies and periodicals proliferated, thanks to government support, and published a large number of translations of fiction and poetry; so, for example, there’d be an issue devoted to contemporary Argentinian short stories and another to Scandinavian poetry, and so on.
I heard a Croatian publisher recently lament the years when a newly translated foreign novel would sell out in two days. I recall how incredulous and contemptuous many older intellectuals were of the popularity of Samuel Beckett and Jean-Luc Godard, for they had probably grown up reading Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don and watching Soviet films. Then all that changed. With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the cultural horizons narrowed everywhere. The nationalists won and the very idea of “Yugoslavia” faded away. Those who regarded themselves as citizens of the world ran for their lives.
That’s what happened to Aleksandar Hemon. He came to the United States from his native Sarajevo on a government-sponsored cultural exchange program for young journalists in the spring of 1992. He was twenty-seven years old. The visit was expected to last a month and he was due to return home on May 1, but the ethnic conflict that had been heating up over the past year in Bosnia and Herzegovina turned into a real war during his absence and just as he was about to take a flight home, Sarajevo was encircled by Serbian nationalists and cut off from the rest of the world. The situation being what it was, Hemon’s father advised him to stay away.
With so little advance notice, this must have been a painful decision to make. In addition to feeling guilty for abandoning his parents and friends, he must have also been anxious about what would become of him if he stayed in the United States. Stranded in Chicago, separated from everyone he knew, he watched the daily destruction of his hometown on TV, the excruciating scenes of people fleeing the sniper fire or lying in their own blood. It was to become the longest military blockade of a city in modern history, lasting nearly four years and surpassing in length the famous World War II sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad.
At the onset of the wars of secession in Yugoslavia, as Hemon recalls, one could still indulge in thinking that a few bad apples had gone nuts and that things would soon return to normal everywhere, since it seemed inconceivable to those not swept up by nationalist passions that a multiethnic country and a way of life that over twenty million people had grown up with and took for granted would not only cease to exist, but would become hell on earth for many of them. Other Bosnians, who like Hemon escaped the war, lost family members. He was luckier. His father, who was an engineer, and his mother, who was a teacher, slipped out through Serbian lines on the day the siege began and went to seek shelter in his late grandfather’s country house in a small village in northern Bosnia.
They spent a year living there off the food they grew in the garden, while watching trucks of Serbian soldiers going to the front, before managing to extricate themselves from that dangerous location and reach Novi Sad in Serbia, where Hemon’s younger sister was completing her university degree and where all three of them applied for immigration visas to Canada. They were admitted to Canada as refugees in 1993.
During all this time, their son was in Chicago working at low-paying jobs. Since he had a degree in English from the University of Sarajavo, he could speak the language well enough to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door, canvas for Greenpeace, and eventually become a teacher of English as a second language. His employers thought his Bosnian accent had an attractive quality to it, which combined with his story of war and displacement might yet elicit whatever vestiges of pity the lonely housewives and grumpy old retirees, on whose doors he knocked, may have had left for someone even more miserable than themselves.
Hemon, who had been a journalist in Bosnia and Herzegovina and had literary ambitions, used this opportunity to improve his English, in hope that he could write in it. He also read a lot of fiction, starting with Nabokov and rereading writers like Chekhov, Kafka, Bulgakov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, whom he had already read back home. “It was only in the imaginary space of literature that I felt comfortable and safe,” he writes of his youth in one of his stories, and he must have felt the same that first year in America.
Once his language improved, he enrolled in the graduate degree program in English at Northwestern University and read Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and many other English and American writers. He wrote his first story in English in 1995, three years after coming to the United States. One of his professors had praised the high quality of his essays and, having learned that Hemon also wrote stories, suggested that he submit one of them to the prestigious literary magazine Triquarterly, published by the university. That story, “The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders,” soon appeared, followed by another story in a later issue and subsequent stories in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Esquire, The Paris Review, and the anthology The Best American Short Stories 1999. His first book, The Question of Bruno, where these stories were collected, came out in 2000, and his first novel, Nowhere Man, two years later. Not only were the reviews of both of these books uniformly favorable, but not long after, Hemon received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was honored with a MacArthur “genius grant” for the fiction he wrote in his adopted language.
Hemon is indisputably a major literary talent. Even his earliest stories are remarkably assured and flawlessly constructed. His English is not only fluent, idiomatic, and resourceful, but his prose conveys a sophisticated literary sensibility familiar with the writings of Borges, Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš, Bohumil Hrabal, and other modern classics and contemporary masters. As his numerous interviews over the years demonstrate, he has thought deeply about craft. With their blending of fiction and memoir, their interweaving of different kinds of narratives and shuffling of characters and events, both his stories and novels require a great amount of skill to produce the effect that they do.
Indeed, there’s nothing conventional or predictable about them. Unconcerned with boundaries between genres, changing perspectives and hoping to unsettle his readers, he works like a filmmaker who selects, edits, and pieces together film strips to create a film. He counts on the imagination of his readers, as much as a poet does, to see the connections between them. Hemon explains it this way:
You devise ways to tell a story that complies with your sensibility. Style and method are really extensions of your present sensibility. The beauty of literature—also its limit—is that it is inescapably personal, even if you’re writing science fiction. Even if your story takes place on a different planet, it comes out of your personality, your personal experience, your sensibilities, your interests, your passions, the whole of you. Even if you tried to extinguish your personality, what is left in the story will reflect it, perhaps by its negation. Our lives provide the bricks from which we build these cathedrals.
His next two books were a novel, The Lazarus Project (2008), and Love and Obstacles (2009), a collection of related stories. They were received with equal critical success and confirmed his reputation. Reviewers time after time praised the originality of his vision and the quality of his prose, especially in The Lazarus Project, which has some of his finest writing. It links together two stories, first that of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jew who escaped to America after a 1903 pogrom in Russia and whose death in the house of the Chicago chief of police on March 2, 1908, was never cleared up, and then the story of Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian refugee and a writer living in Chicago, who becomes obsessed with the case. The chapters that recreate the near-destitute lives of Averbuch and his sister are particularly strong. They remind me in their starkness of the Bowery stories of Stephen Crane and the graphic black-and-white photos of crime scenes and murdered people’s faces in tabloids of the period, like the one reproduced in The Lazarus Project, in which a dapper police detective is shown lifting the head of Averbuch’s corpse propped up to sit in a chair.
Every good short story and novel is a judgment of life. Hemon calls The Lazarus Project his Abu Ghraib novel. As he is the first one to admit, his writing is driven by ethical and moral considerations. The story of Averbuch and his sister is both poignant and troubling. They escape injustice in Russia and find poverty, injustice, and xenophobic hysteria in America too, as does the Bosnian refugee Vladimir Brik in the aftermath of September 11. Hemon’s outrage is understandable. Though his life here turned out better, it would be monstrous to expect him to practice selective morality and ignore the lies, torture, brutality, and slaughter of innocents his adopted country engaged in during the Iraq war, after witnessing the same types of crime committed in his homeland.
Unlike many immigrant writers who no longer, if they ever did, write in their native tongue, Hemon has a biweekly column in Bosnian for a Sarajevo magazine and tells interviewers that he feels equally comfortable writing in both languages nowadays. Nonetheless, the heroes in his fiction are deracinated people who have lost not only their homeland, but even their identity. They are like people who awake after deep sleep and don’t know where they are. While the shock of finding themselves in unfamiliar surroundings is a momentarily disturbing sensation for them, it is, of course, a more lasting and a far more complicated one for those permanently uprooted. “He began thinking of himself,” he writes of a character in one of his stories, “as someone else—a cartoon character, a dog, a detective, a madman….” In some way there is no real life, Hemon says. It’s always the story of the life that we are currently living.
“What is art but a way of seeing,” Saul Bellow asked. He could have had Hemon in mind. Here is how Jozef Pronek, the newly arrived immigrant in one of Hemon’s early stories, describes Chicago while riding a bus on his way to the El:
He watched the street gliding by, looking for signs that he was awake and, indeed, alive: a revolving breasted bust in the wedding-dress store window; Beanie Babies piled up in Noah’s Ark; women in saris walking down Mozart Street; World Shoes; East-West Appliances; Universal Distributors; a man in a white shirt installing a bucketful of roses in front of his flower shop; Cosmos Press; Garden of Eden Cocktail Bar; leaflets taped to light posts; signposts, mailboxes reading “Pray for wisdom for Mike”; Miracle Medical Center; Acme Vacuum; a tailor-on-duty sign held by a tailor dummy.
Keeping our eyes open is one way of seeing and experiencing the world, but there’s another way, equally indispensable, when we close our eyes and ask our imagination for help in describing what we just saw. Hemon is fond of both ways. “This is how cockroach sees furniture in apartment,” one of his characters says after being driven past Chicago skyscrapers. Or speaking of his girlfriend, he says: “In the mornings, she would suddenly erect her upper body in bed, the way maidens in horror movies wake up from torturous nightmares, just before the killer (who is always in the vicinity) leaps at them to slice them up.”
Detecting a likeness at a moment’s notice between two seemingly unrelated realities is one of the most exhilarating and pleasurable stunts our imagination can perform. For someone living hand to mouth like Hemon, trudging around the city answering job ads, the chief pastime is looking. Not just at the varieties of wealth and squalor, happiness and misery he comes across, but at every odd thing that catches his attention in this strange new world, like the odd appearance and behavior of American doorknobs, so unlike the ones he had grown up with at home:
The hard part in writing a narrative of someone’s life is choosing from the abundance of details and microevents, all of them equally significant, or equally insignificant. If one elects to include only the important events: the births, the deaths, the loves, the humiliations…one denies the real substance of life: the ephemera, the nethermoments, much too small to be recorded (the train pulling into the station where there is nobody; a spider sliding down an invisible rope and landing on the floor just in time to be stepped on…). But you cannot simply list all the moments when the world tickles your senses, only to seep away between your fingers and eyelashes, leaving you alone to tell the story of your life to an audience interested only in the fireworks of universal experiences, the roller coaster rides of sympathy and judgment.
Like other writers whose picaresque lives resemble the lives of their heroes, Hemon writes both to make sense of his adventures and to entertain. He knows the dizzying feeling someone uprooted gets on realizing that he can change identities and become someone else entirely without anyone else knowing, and he mines that prospect to concoct his stories. As everybody knows, our memories are made as much as they are recalled. We relate the events of our lives to our friends as stories that may vary in detail, if there happened to be something so singular at the core of that particular experience that it eludes our telling, or we make alterations if we find the new way of telling the story more aesthetically pleasing. Hemon understands that. He has said that he wants to blow up the notion that all that writers and artists have to do is describe reality, which supposedly is solid and self-evident with no gap between an individual self and the world out there and no need of the imagination to close it.
What a storyteller does, according to Hemon, is find ways to cover that gap. Despite his switching identities, mixing real and fictional events, and tinkering with chronology, depending on the exigencies of the plot, we never lose sight of him and come to understand that like James Ensor, Hemon is working on a self-portrait surrounded by all his masks. He told an interviewer:
Stories, whether they’re told or written, document human experience, and that is different from documenting fact. If I try to tell you what happened to me in ’91, I’ll have to guess about certain things, I’ll have to make up certain things, because I can’t remember everything. And certain memories are not datable. You and I might remember our lunch, but some years from now we won’t remember it was on a Friday. I will not connect it with what happened this morning because they are discontinuous events. To tell a story, you have to—not falsify—but you have to assemble and disassemble. Memories are creative. To treat memory as a fact is nonsense. It’s inescapably fiction.
Not surprisingly then, The Book of My Lives is not a memoir, but a collection of sixteen autobiographical pieces in roughly chronological order that were commissioned by various magazines and that leave out many other things about Hemon, which the readers of his stories either know or can deduce. His reminiscences in this short book range from his growing up in Sarajevo in the early Seventies to his early years as an immigrant in America and his later life in Chicago. We read about what his hometown was like back in the days of Marshal Tito and socialism, when the ethnicity of any of the kids he ran around with in his neighborhood was wholly irrelevant, and how that idyllic state was broken when he called one of the boys a Turk without realizing that it was a derogatory word for Muslims, and how he was drafted in the Yugoslav People’s Army and what happened to him there. In still another piece, he recounts how he worked on the radio reporting on cultural affairs and writing film and book reviews, till he was given his own brief time slot that was called “Sasha Hemon Tells You True and Untrue Stories,” for which he wrote very short fiction pieces.
He also tells us how his much- admired professor of English at the university, who taught him how to read Emily Dickinson, Danilo Kiš, Robert Frost, and Tolstoy, became a notorious war criminal later; how he returned to Bosnia five years after the war ended and felt displaced in a town he used to regard as his own; how he played chess and soccer in Chicago with immigrants coming from dozens of different countries; how his first marriage ended; and in the final, heart-wrenching piece, how his one-year-old daughter died after being diagnosed with a rare disease.
What makes reading his recollections so absorbing is that they are interspersed with comments on various serious subjects: the mystery of how everything he had known and loved violently came apart; the seductive glow of inevitable catastrophe that made Sarajavo more beautiful than ever in the days before the fighting started; displacement as both a physical and metaphysical condition; the pros and cons of assimilation; why loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose, as Nelson Algren said; the rare moments of transcendence known to those who play a team sport like soccer; the discovery on meeting other immigrants that there is always a story more heartbreaking than one’s own; and that we learn from the death of one’s own child no lesson worth learning, no experience that could benefit anybody else in the world.
Among the many delightful stories he tells—and Hemon like his fellow Bosnians is a masterful storyteller—there’s the one about him and a group of friends becoming interested in the revolutionary possibilities of art and thinking up performances that would astonish their fellow citizens, like showing up somewhere at the crack of dawn with a hundred loaves of bread and making crosses out of them, or having a happening in a theater where on the opening night all the lights would be turned off and a few stray dogs with flashlights attached to their heads would serve as lighting. Hemon, whose paternal ancestors came from Galicia, has a delightful piece about forty-seven people gathering at his grandparents’ country house to eat borscht made by his grandmother, a utopian dish, as he calls it, because it contains everything, is produced and eaten collectively, and can be refrigerated and reheated in perpetuity, its only crucial ingredient being a large, hungry family.
As is often the case in his books, tragedy and comedy are intermixed. In a piece describing his return to Sarajevo after the war, he tells of staying with an old aunt in a room pockmarked by shrapnel and bullets since the apartment had been in the direct sight line of a Serbian sniper. His aunt, a devout Catholic, continued to believe in essential human goodness, despite all the contrary evidence around her. She felt the sniper who shot at her and her husband was essentially a good man, because during the siege, she said, he often fired over their heads to warn them that he was watching and that they shouldn’t move about so carelessly in their own apartment.
If this little tale about a saintly old woman has moved you, I’m willing to bet that you will like all of Hemon’s books.