- The 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’.
In the early days of Hemon’s Anglophone career, well-meaning reviewers casting about for another novelist whose name could stand for multilingualism, virtuosity and a Slavic language background tended to overlook his helpful references to Conrad and reached for Nabokov instead. The comparison isn’t completely uncalled for – Hemon even has his narrators adopt a lordly stance towards the ‘Freudian gewgaws’ in their dreams – but it puts too much emphasis on a side of him that’s Nabokovianly bent on winning a fifth-form English prize via alliteration, assonance and simile. ‘His pate stuck in a crate … yelping for help’: in the first two books lines like that aren’t always deleted. The opening section of Nowhere Man begins:
Had I been dreaming, I would have dreamed of being someone else, with a little creature burrowed in my body, clawing at the walls inside my chest – a recurring nightmare. But I was awake, listening to the mizzle in my pillow, to the furniture furtively sagging, to the house creaking under the wind assaults. I straightened my legs, so the blanket ebbed and my right foot rose out of the sludge of darkness like a squat, extinguished lighthouse. The blinds gibbered for a moment, commenting on my performance, then settled in silence.
Usually the writing’s a bit calmer. Hemon’s sense of humour generally comes to the rescue (‘The attendant seemed to be paid per smile and had the tan of an impeccably baked chicken’) and many of his flourishes work well: in the paragraph after the mizzle-pillow episode the narrator observes some paper ‘throbbing like a jellyfish’ in his toilet bowl. Unidiomatic constructions are often turned to his advantage: along with more jagged changes of register than you’d expect from a native speaker, they let him shoot for freshness of diction without coming across as mannered, and it’s a help on the jokiness front to be able to get away with phrases like ‘repressing a flatulence’. He’s fond of adjectives made of nouns – ‘torturous’, ‘slumberous’, ‘susurrus’, ‘mucous’ – and nouns made of adjectives: ‘I did not want to exhibit my wobblibility.’ Total fluency combined with the occasional off-kilter word choice (‘the comparatively silly dangers of not washing your fruit and vegetables’) make him consistently fun to read.
Another side-effect of his not quite American English is that the voice seems to come from someone who’s more interested in unburdening himself than in zapping the reader with his style (though he might not be opposed to doing that too), and Hemon has plenty of material to work through. The Question of Bruno begins and ends in childhood and dips into family and European history but centres on two stories: ‘A Coin’, in which a young man marooned in Chicago reads letters from a friend in wartime Sarajevo, and ‘Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls’, which circles around Pronek in the third person during the phase of his life in America when he wants to go home but can’t. Nowhere Man, subtitled ‘The Pronek Fantasies’, scrutinises him from a range of angles as a teenage Beatles fan, a sightseer in Kiev, a jobseeker in Chicago and an American resident starting a serious relationship in the late 1990s. In both books Hemon writes well about being quizzed by people who aren’t too well informed about ‘Basnia’, offsetting swathes of funny dialogue (‘“And we like Kundera,” Andrea’s mother said. “He’s from Czechoslovakia, too”’) with more inward explorations of guilt, pent-up rage and cultural dislocation.
Hemon’s stories don’t go out of their way to pretend that they’re not drawing on the writer’s life. The family in ‘Exchange of Pleasant Words’ is called ‘Hemon’, his characters’ childhood worlds don’t vary much (apartment blocks, a fought-over playground), and some of the narrators are rigged to give the impression that Hemon is speaking in his own person, a tactic that’s taken further in Love and Obstacles. At the same time, non-Hemon Hemons are scattered here and there – in Chicago, Pronek empties bins with a Hemon from the Dominican Republic whom he suspects of not being very bright – and the ‘facts’ are highly mutable. The hero’s father is sometimes dead but more often isn’t; when not, the parents are sometimes trapped by the siege, sometimes aren’t. Several characters have a childhood friend known as Vampir, but the nickname’s origins are different each time he’s introduced. In Nowhere Man, motifs small and large – numerous references to marbles; a repeated sighting of some deer – imply that some signal might be on the way to tell us just how fictitious each bit is. Instead, the last section pilfers stuff from earlier on for one of Hemon’s comic-sinister historical fabulations, after which a framing story loops back towards the book’s first sentence.
Along with the Being John Malkovich effect that Hemon gets by surrounding Pronek with other versions of himself, all this just about dovetails with his thematic concerns. A sense of ‘stale disreality’ with regard to personal identity afflicts all his displaced characters sooner or later as they trudge between airports, cold water flats and crap jobs. Fetching his coat from a cloakroom, Pronek tells an American girlfriend about his feeling that it could well have been swapped for a different one: ‘Maybe everything you have is replaced by something else … So … everything is different, and your memories don’t look right, so you change them … I cannot ever know that this is my real, old coat, but I must wear it anyway, because there’s no other coat, and I must make memories about it.’ (‘You Eastern Europeans are pretty weird,’ she says.) The idea of operating under multiple identities excites a boy in ‘The Sorge Spy Ring’ and underwrites a louche Russian émigré’s nefarious career in Nowhere Man. There are also hints that unventilated anger and the burden of the past threaten to condemn the Hemon hero to a kind of hamster-wheel of the self.
All the same, the characters’ predicaments don’t always explain the lo-fi Borges-ism, and some of the more recent stories toy with the notion that it might be a joke or a scam or merely ‘one of those brainy postmodern set-ups everybody likes so well because it has something to do with identity’. Either way, its appealingly on-the-fly quality serves as another token of authenticity, implying as it does an urgent need to bundle stories together, using intratextual business when necessary, rather than an arcane formalistic agenda. Nowhere Man, in particular, benefits from its status as an unidentified narrative object – it isn’t labelled ‘novel’ but comes across as something heftier than a collection of linked novellas and stories – while The Lazarus Project (2008), though unchallengeably a novel, doesn’t manage to conjure up the same feeling of open-endedness. Motifs are shuttled carefully between different levels of reality, the line between art and life gets scuffed and Hemon sweeps Serbian nationalism, the Global War on Terror and the historical murder of a Jewish immigrant by a Chicago police chief into his embrace. But it seems too rigidly assembled, in part because the fraying of the narrator’s marriage, which carries a lot of weight as a structural device, isn’t really dramatised: we barely meet the wife.
One of the pieces in The Book of My Lives, a lightly modified gathering of memoiristic journalism originally written for the New Yorker, Granta and other outlets, suggests an explanation. ‘Kennel Life’, a privacy respecting, non-finger-pointing description of the end of his first marriage, to ‘L.’, suggests that he wrote aspects of the break-up into the novel while sensibly/cravenly/gallantly – take your pick – not giving too much stage-time to a character who might be taken as a portrait of his ex-wife. The Book of My Lives isn’t jumping with lit crit-admissible information, and much of what’s deducible is unsurprising: for example, that he himself wouldn’t have manifested the Pnin-like bemusement that Pronek occasionally does when faced with Sonic Youth T-shirts and the like. ‘By the time I graduated from college, in 1990, I could act out with my sister chunks of dialogue (mispronounced) from His Girl Friday,’ he writes: ‘I could recite Public Enemy’s angry invectives, and was up to my ears in Sonic Youth … I wrote an essay on Bret Easton Ellis and corporate capitalism.’ In general the younger self he depicts is worldlier and luckier and less purposefully shaped than the analogous figures in the fiction – almost as if writers make things up.
Still, he knows how to tell a story and the book has some pretty good ones. ‘The Book of My Life’ looks back at Nikola Koljević, one of his instructors at the University of Sarajevo, who taught a Cleanth Brooks-inspired poetry class, was said to have played piano ‘in the jazz bars of Belgrade’, and went on to use his resonant English to assure BBC reporters that Serbian shellfire was ‘part of the ritual celebration of Orthodox Christmas’ in his later role as a sidekick to Karadžić. ‘Dog Lives’ describes his parents’ tense encounters with paramilitaries during their departure from Bosnia (they were on the last train out of Sarajevo before the siege and then took shelter in a ‘family homestead’ in the Serb-controlled north-west before making their way to Canada in late 1993). ‘The Kauders Case’ explains the punk-style context in which he took his first steps as a satirist, among them a Nazis and resisters-themed cocktail reception, organised with the help of a girl called Isidora in 1986, which got him into trouble with the state security services.
Isidora, he adds, turned out to be less of an ironist than he’d thought. She went home to Belgrade, got involved in nationalist politics, went out with a future paramilitary leader and later published The Fiancée of a War Criminal, a memoir. In his defensive telling, though, this coda falls flat, and it’s hard not to imagine the story he could have made of it in the teasing, pseudo-confessional mode of his fiction. Elsewhere he deals with material – playing in a Beatles cover band, doing military service in a grim Macedonian outpost – that he’s worked over in previous books, sometimes with similar wording. ‘The Lives of Others’ translates ideas about displacement which are communicated more wittily in his stories into uncharacteristically wooden language (‘Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances’). And the lighter pieces often seem listlessly churned out. Two short columns on food are filled with such lines as ‘the borscht that day yielded a symphony’ and ‘as the perfectly mixed spinach and eggs and cheese and filo dough melted in my mouth, I felt all the love that could be felt by a boy of 19.’
‘I have to be pressed into writing non-fiction,’ Hemon says in the acknowledgments, and ordinarily you might wonder why he’s thrown together a makeweight book, seemingly edited only vaguely for narrative continuity, instead of blazing cheerily onward with a novel or story collection. But the last chapter, first published in the New Yorker in 2011, which describes his daughter’s diagnosis with a malignant brain tumour, aged nine months, and her death 108 days later, means that the question isn’t really necessary. It’s an urgent and unsentimental piece of writing – ‘We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anybody’ – and not surprisingly it inhabits a completely different plane from the rest of the book. It’s also basically unreviewable, so I’ll just note that it doesn’t rule out the possibility of more fiction from Hemon, and, in a couple of senses, hope for the best.