- BuyThe Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
Picador, 224 pp, £20.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 1090 0
‘My story is boring,’ the narrator says in Aleksandar Hemon’s story ‘The Conductor’, in Love and Obstacles (2009): ‘I was not in Sarajevo when the war began; I felt helplessness and guilt as I watched the destruction of my hometown on TV; I lived in America.’ He means it’s boring in comparison with the character he’s discussing, a Muslim poet from Sarajevo who stays put for the siege and later awes his hosts in Iowa City with week-long drinking binges and furious bouts of composition. (‘American poets used to be like that,’ a professor of Slavic languages says wistfully. ‘Now all they do is teach and complain and fuck their students on the sly.’) But of course he’s also gesturing towards his own role as a projection of the Hemon self, a self that’s been doubled, reimagined and refracted in four books of fiction so far without straying too wildly from the same biographical outline.
Hemon – ‘pronounced as Haemon’, one of his avatars says – was born in Sarajevo on 9 September 1964, three years and a day before the birth date assigned to Jozef Pronek, the stand-in we’re given the most information about. His father was of Ukrainian ancestry and wasn’t doing badly in Tito’s Yugoslavia: a diplomat in some of his son’s stories, he appears in others, more accurately, as a high-up electrical engineer. Childhood and adolescence in late socialist Sarajevo are depicted in Hemon’s fiction with conscious nostalgia: ‘The boys were handsome, the girls beautiful, the sports teams successful, the bands good, the streets felt as soft as a Persian carpet, and the Winter Olympics made everyone feel that we were at the centre of the world.’ Armed with a degree in literature and some experience as a local journalist, he found himself in Kiev when Ukraine left the USSR. At home he viewed the mobilisation of competing nationalisms with dazed alarm. Aged 27, in January 1992, he flew to America ‘in the capacity of a freedom-loving writer’, as one of the Pronek stories sardonically puts it, courtesy of a visitors’ programme run by the United States Information Agency.
Deciding not to use his return ticket on 1 May that year didn’t take great foresight: Serb units were already in place round Sarajevo and on 2 May the blockade began in earnest. Hemon, in Chicago, applied for political asylum and took any job he could find – assembling sandwiches, selling magazine subscriptions door to door – while getting to work on his English; later he enrolled on a master’s course at Northwestern University. By the time he was able to revisit Sarajevo, in 1997, he’d started publishing stories in American magazines, reworking old material to begin with (‘The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders’, an absurdist recitation pitched somewhere between Roberto Bolaño and Chris Morris, was dreamed up for radio in 1988) but later addressing his displaced existence. The Question of Bruno (2000) and Nowhere Man (2002) made him something more than a name to watch, and since then he’s had his share of American goodies – big-name grants, a fine relationship with the New Yorker and so on – without relinquishing what’s left of his Bosnian identity and his outsider’s perspective on cultural non-exports like American football, aka, ‘helmeted morons colliding head-on’.