The Book of My Lives

Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of My Lives
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The Book of My Lives

Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon’s lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy’s life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man’s life is about poking at the pretensions of the city’s elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better journalism. And then, his life in Chicago: watching from afar as war breaks out in Sarajevo and the city comes under siege, no way to return home; his parents and sister fleeing Sarajevo with the family dog, leaving behind all else they had ever known; and Hemon himself starting a new life, his own family, in this new city. And yet this is not really a memoir. The Book of My Lives, Hemon’s first book of nonfiction, defies convention and expectation. It is a love song to two different cities; it is a heartbreaking paean to the bonds of family; it is a stirring exhortation to go out and play soccer–and not for the exercise. It is a book driven by passions but built on fierce intelligence, devastating experience, and sharp insight. And like the best narratives, it is a book that will leave you a different reader–a different person, with a new way of looking at the world–when you’ve finished. For fans of Hemon’s fiction, The Book of My Lives is simply indispensable; for the uninitiated, it is the perfect introduction to one of the great writers of our time. A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013

Review

This series of autobiographical sketches set in both the former Yugoslavia and modern-day Chicago confounds expectations. Aleksandar Hemon’s fiction has bewildered reviewers. It lurches from wild historical escapades in the near and far east to quirky (albeit pedestrian) conundrums in a modern-day America. These essays follow the same pattern. Hemon frustratingly resists grand narratives. Readers looking for clarity on war in the Balkans or post-GFC Chicago will find none. In Hemon’s world, imperfect individuals exist within epic history, and he offers insight of a different sort.

In 1991 war might be raging, but Hemon concentrates on a Sarajevo heroin epidemic. In today’s America things are looking grim, but the focus is on personal anxieties, whims and flaws. Hemon’s self-portrait is not always flattering, but it is a complicated and honestly incomplete depiction of memory, immigration, war, history and change.

Some will find the clash of recognisable elements jarring: are we reading a war memoir, a tale of migrant durability or even a David Sedaris-esque familial comedy of errors? As a whole this collection doesn’t fit any of these genres. Readers will take from Hemon what they will. All he offers are bittersweet, disjointed fragments from one world gone to hell and another finding its feet. In that sense, this collection is a refreshing relief from memoirs telling us about the insurmountable ancient passions and irreconcilable differences of the wild east.

On the other hand, it does seem strange that a writer who draws much of his authority from his Sarajevan roots chooses to delve so selectively into aspects of the conflict there. The Book of My Lives is for readers who don’t object to collections that raise more questions than answers.


Chris Dite is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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