The World and All That It Holds 
by Aleksandar Hemon.
Picador, 336 pp., £18.99, February, 978 0 330 51332 6
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The title​ of Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel suggests a conflict of priorities: an impulse to totalise and a fondness for variety, a love of clarity paired with a penchant for clutter. The aspiring saga builder pauses, mid-set piece, to insist he’s actually a spry postmodernist. Only one of these authorial personae was evident in Hemon’s early work. Born in Sarajevo to a Serbian mother and a Ukrainian father, he settled in the US in 1992, aged 27, after a trip for young journalists coincided with the siege. He sold magazines and canvassed for Greenpeace, played football with fellow émigrés, taught English as a second language and became the leading ESL writer of his generation, with a style marked by neologisms (‘smileful’, ‘unsmiled’), off-trail Latinisms (‘fenestral’, ‘penumbral’) and the literal use of words such as ‘febrile’, ‘redolent’ and ‘exude’. His aesthetic – stirring yet amiable, not entirely un-Rushdie-like – upheld the virtues of plurality and impurity, with an emphasis on the figure of the misfit. In a series of books published in the 2000s, Hemon wrote with varying degrees of embellishment about the killing of Franz Ferdinand, the adventures of mid-century spies, the war in Bosnia and his own trajectory, from boy with a beekeeper father to teenager besotted with music, books and girls; from overnight exile to freshly minted American disgusted by the second Bush regime and garlanded middle-aged author.

The early books resisted big claims and hard edges. ‘Islands’, the first story in The Question of Bruno (2000), comprises 33 numbered vignettes; the second, ‘The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders’, describes 71 items relating to the title figure, a forestry expert, pornography obsessive, pyromaniac and champion farter who knew Goebbels, Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg, and who urged Gavrilo Princip to pull the trigger. Nowhere Man (2002) was billed as a series of stories (or ‘fantasies’), despite the recurring presence of Hemon’s alter ego, the hapless Jozef Pronek. A story in the linked collection Love and Obstacles (2009) is titled ‘The Bees, Part I’ and is divided into thirteen sections, one of which, ‘My Life’, lists the 25 scenes of an autobiographical script written by the narrator’s father (only the fourth was ‘ever shot’). Even The Lazarus Project (2008), a self-declared novel, proceeds in parallel strands.

What all these fictions have in common is a commitment to multiplicity. One character ‘launches into monolithic monologues’ – the opposite, it’s clear, of what a person ought to do. The narrator in ‘American Commando’, from Love and Obstacles, tells a Bosnian film student called Alma that all his ‘identities are at your disposal’. It’s intended as a joke, a response to her request to tell the story of what she calls his ‘complicated identifications’. He thinks of himself as an example of ‘personal consistency’, so is surprised to find evidence of internal division. While on chalkboard-cleaning duty at school, he tells Alma, he loved looking at the other children as he wandered down the hallway to wash the sponge. When she asks what made this so exciting, he describes the sensation of being both there and ‘not there’.

Hemon was also rejecting authorial expertise or epistemic authority. ‘The Accordion’, an immaculate three-and-a-half-page story from The Question of Bruno, starts by narrating Franz Ferdinand’s death from his own perspective. A voice interrupts, dismissing this account as a product of ‘irresponsible imagination and shameless speculation’. We are then told that what we are reading was written by a displaced Bosnian on a Chicago subway in 1996. In The Lazarus Project, Brik travels to Eastern Europe to research the true story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant murdered by the Chicago police chief in 1908. One strand of the novel begins: ‘The time and place are the only things I am certain of.’ The other: ‘I am a reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries.’

In his recourse to these tricks and devices, Hemon revealed himself an admirer, or disciple, of the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš, who had a taste, as Susan Sontag put it, for ‘odd mixtures’. Kiš drew on Gnosticism, Islam and Balkan poetry, while disdaining philosophies he saw as enslaved to an overarching concept: nationalism, monotheism, even realism. The omniscient narrator was, he said, the ‘most pernicious and persistent of literary conventions’, a Balzacian inheritance no longer fit for purpose. Taking his cue instead from Babel and Borges, he offered fictional versions of the historical text, the eyewitness report and the encyclopedia entry. The writer, he said, must devise ‘a stratagem to convince me of the truth of what I read’, offering ‘proof, so to speak, of the authenticity of the content’. Hemon has written of Kiš’s quest for a form – ‘any form at all’ – that could ‘match and contain the intensity, fragmentariness, intellectual weight and troubling connotations of modern history’. He chose not to call himself a novelist.

The World and All That It Holds at first appears to confirm Hemon as a purveyor of plurality and a Kišian refusenik. The contents page separates its four parts by date and location. The settings are notable sites of mixing: multi-ethnic, polyglot Sarajevo, where Rafael Pinto runs a pharmacy in the years before the First World War; the trenches of Galicia, where he serves as a doctor for the Austro-Hungarian army and falls in love with a Bosnian soldier called Osman; Uzbekistan after the armistice, ruled by Bolsheviks and populated by refugees; and Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, during the final years of the International Settlement. Pinto is a specialist in fusion, a chemist who writes poetry not just in Bosnian and German but Ladino, the language that Sephardi Jews took with them after their expulsion from Spain. The forces of villainy are a range of monolithic creeds: nationalism, communism, ethnic separatism.

As in much of Hemon’s earlier work, the narrator is reconstructing the past at a time close to the present day. It emerges that the account we are reading came to the narrator via a woman called Rahela – ‘Pinto would tell Rahela many years later’. But it’s another hundred pages before we find out that Rahela is Osman’s daughter, born in the Fergana Valley in 1921. Her mother dies in childbirth and Osman soon disappears, making Pinto both adoptive father and bereaved partner. There are references to the places where information about Pinto and Osman couldn’t be found, such as ‘the municipal and Red Cross records’ relating to the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and the many ‘narratives of wars and great murderous men, of expeditions, revolutions and colonial exploits’.

More reliable sources are introduced, only to be revealed as partial or defective. While living in Tashkent after the war, Pinto and Osman encounter an Albanian soldier called Jozef Lazar, who turns out to be Major Moser-Ethering, a character based on the British spy and memoirist Frederick Bailey. Hemon has drawn on genuine texts before, though not always faithfully. The historian Bernard Wasserstein complained about the liberties taken in Nowhere Man, in which the narrator reads a different – more dramatic – version of Wasserstein’s Secret War in Shanghai. Hemon plays fairer here, using Bailey’s book Mission to Tashkent as the blueprint for Moser-Ethering’s ‘many memoirs’, beginning with Sparking the Fire, which we are told is the only written record of Osman’s existence. Bailey’s account mentions a spy called Manditch, who came from Sarajevo and knew Princip; he seems to be a model for Pinto, who witnesses the assassination of Ferdinand (he remembers Princip’s ‘sickly’ eyes and the ‘tiny tufts of hair’ between his knuckles), and also for Osman, who works reluctantly for the Bolshevik secret police in Tashkent. The only things to have been lifted directly from Mission to Tashkent are its publication date and a chapter title (‘To the Mountains’).

Hemon hints throughout that there is something curious about the account we’re reading. He refuses to say who the narrator is or how he came to be interested in Pinto’s story. We have to wait until the end for an explanation. In The Lazarus Project, by contrast, one of the two strands is identified from the start as Brik’s research project into emigration to early 20th-century Chicago. I won’t spoil the ending, but for all the build-up it doesn’t deliver a last-act thrill; rather, postponing the fact has the effect of preventing us from relaxing into the fiction, without the compensations of scepticism and irony afforded by the earlier books.

If, as Hemon appears to believe, the teller is as important as the tale, there is no advantage to withholding information about the means by which the narrator arrived at the story, or why he cares. Knowing that every description of Pinto’s thoughts is derived from Rahela’s account of her conversations with him makes a difference. It goes some way to explaining the caricatural nostalgia of Pinto’s relationship with Osman and his time as a medical student in Vienna (‘the glances exchanged on the promenade along the Danube’). Hemon seems to believe that he can insulate himself with this device, that in employing a narrator with access to testimony he is defending himself against charges of authorial omnipotence. It’s hard not to suspect that he just couldn’t let himself write a straightforward story of displacement, doomed love and derring-do against a succession of busy backdrops – a well-made historical novel. Yet, aside from a couple of metatextual nudges, this is what he has produced.

Hemon isn’t​ the first writer to want to be both novelist and philosopher of fiction or history (or both). Isaiah Berlin described an instance of this problem in his characterisation of Tolstoy as a fox, who perceives reality ‘as a collection of separate entities’ and ‘knows many things’, but who, while writing War and Peace, wanted – like the hedgehog – to know one big thing, to present a ‘vast, unitary whole’. Tolstoy’s sense of reality, Berlin argued, was ‘too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world’. Kiš identified a similar denial in Flaubert, who was aware of ‘a unity gone for ever’ (the realist worldview), but still wanted to provide a ‘comprehensive vision of the world’, proceeding, as Kiš put it elsewhere, as if the world hadn’t been ‘smashed to smithereens’.

How best to characterise Hemon’s own internal civil war? One of the narrators of Nowhere Man invokes the central challenge of representation – the necessity of choosing between ‘microevents’ and ‘ephemera’ and ‘nethermoments’ on the one hand, and ‘births’ and ‘deaths’, ‘humiliations’ and ‘uprisings’ on the other. He concludes that you can’t simply list all the moments when ‘the world tickles your senses’, especially if the audience is ‘interested only in the fireworks of universal experiences’. In The World and All That It Holds, Hemon wants to show how the monolithic lays waste to the macaronic – and how the macaronic, in the form of the resilient Pinto, manages to survive. Yet Hemon is seduced again and again by the universal. On the morning of Franz Ferdinand’s visit to Sarajevo, Pinto hears a loud noise, and the narrator adds in parenthesis: ‘Only later that day would Pinto find out that the boom had been caused by a hand grenade a hapless young assassin had hurled at the archduke’s car. I can confirm, from personal experience, that we are always late to the history in which we live.’ That ‘we are always’ shows a reluctance to let the particular speak, to be provisional and sceptical in the familiar Hemon way. Later we read that Pinto

stood in front of the tall mirror, in new clothes, and saw an old, tired, dark-skinned stranger. His neck rising from the buttoned collar, the way he slouched and sank into his own weakened body, his old misshapen jacket and the pockets weighted with the debris of his life made him want to cry. He was only 43 and had already lived far too long and seen much too much.

Then comes the chaser: ‘Not everyone gets the same amount of living in life.’ (Another sentence could have been written by Alanis Morissette: ‘A wise man spent his life searching for a way to live without perishing, and just as he found it, he perished.’)

The novel is stuffed with keywords: ‘home’, ‘memory’, ‘past’, ‘future’, and, above all, ‘world’, the special valency of which Hemon never manages to articulate. In the opening pages of The Lazarus Project he writes that the idea of unexplored possibilities is ‘all that the world is’, that the world is ‘always greater than your desires’. But the word became a tic in This Does Not Belong to You, published in 2019 alongside another memoir, My Parents: An Introduction. Though Hemon doesn’t mention Wittgenstein by name, he spends quite a lot of time quoting or paraphrasing him, a decision as annoying as it is baffling: ‘The world is all that is the case’; ‘The world is the totality of facts’; ‘The world is everything that is the case.’ His growing interest in the definitive and strident, reflected in his preference for the hedgehogish Tractatus over the foxier Philosophical Investigations, comes at a cost: the loss of the miscellaneous work concerned with multiplicity.

But the bigger influence on Hemon’s recent work seems to be Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the creators of the Matrix series. Hemon first met the Wachowskis in 2009, when they invited him to collaborate on Cobalt Neural 9, a mock-documentary (later abandoned) that examined the Bush administration from a point eighty years in the future. He thanked them in the acknowledgments to his novel The Making of Zombie Wars (2015), a satire about screenwriting set against the backdrop of the War on Terror. Soon afterwards, he began working with the Wachowskis on a sci-fi series for Netflix. In his essay ‘The Transformative Experience of Writing for Sense8’, Hemon explained that he was already an admirer of long-form television, but hadn’t previously been interested in doing that kind of writing himself. Having now tried his hand at it, he seems to have concluded that the major difference between television and literature was the approach to narrative. In his ‘literary projects’, he had gravitated towards ‘plotless structures’ which turn less on ‘characters and events’ than on language and thought. Working on Sense8, however, there was ‘little time and even less need’ to attend to that sort of thing. What mattered was plot or, more precisely, ‘plotting’. The aim of dramatic storytelling, he said last year, is to put your character in a situation where a decision is ‘required or expected’. The operation should be ‘logical’, ‘algorithmic’.

The effects of this turn are evident in My Parents and This Does Not Belong to You, which begin, respectively: ‘The story goes’ and ‘Once upon a time’. In a footnote, Hemon gives a definition of ‘catastrophe’ from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘the final action that completes the unravelling of the plot in a play’. When it comes to memory, he writes, ‘there is always a sequence,’ a ‘storyline’ to be ‘discovered’. He tells us that ‘movement through space, literally and figuratively, generates stories – narration equals migration squared.’ In ‘God’s Fate’, an essay from 2018, he defines the world of refugees as ‘a vast narrative landscape’. ‘What literature does, or at least can do,’ he says, ‘is allow for individual narrative enfranchisement.’ (War and Peace, he insists, is ‘a fucking TV show!’)

The World and All That It Holds seems beholden to these priorities. It starts with the shooting of Franz Ferdinand and culminates in the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. There’s a pregnancy, a disappearance, a fatal car crash. What distinguishes the book from Hemon’s other work is its relentlessness. In The Lazarus Project, Brik speaks for his creator when he says that ‘it was never in my nature to take a straight path anywhere.’ But in the words of a manual quoted in The Making of Zombie Wars, ‘Plot don’t stop.’ While a plot doesn’t necessarily require grandeur, it is itself a kind of big idea, more easily harnessed to the ends of the epic or saga than to wry comic portraiture, and unitary in its messages. In an article about their adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Hemon writes that in the Wachowskis’ work ‘the forces of evil [inflict] misery on humans, who maintain their faith until they’re saved by an unexpected miracle.’ Elsewhere, he says that The Matrix Resurrections, for which he co-wrote the screenplay, is concerned with the idea that ‘love will free the real world.’ Hemon used to enjoy sending up this kind of thing. In The Question of Bruno, the narrator recalls the poster blurb for Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life: ‘“When she chooses her career over her love for him she cannot know, alas, that she’s making the greatest mistake of her life” etc.’ A character in The Making of Zombie Wars says of his work in progress: ‘It’s about zombies. And wars.’

Hemon’s account of working on Sense8 ended with an analogy. His experiences as a screenwriter reminded him of the key moment in his literary development: accepting English as his written language. It was a whole new way of processing the world. He couldn’t be sure what ‘the experience of exultant plotting’ may have done to his mind – ‘at least not yet’. On the evidence of The World and All That It Holds, he still isn’t sure. Aleksandar Hemon isn’t the writer he once was, and his efforts to conceal it are fooling no one.

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