The Book of My Lives
By Aleksandar Hemon
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
One of the pieces in Hemon’s first collection of nonfiction begins with this section title: “First, A Little Bit About Me, Though I Am Not Important Here.” The essay is about the role of sports (in this case, soccer) in cross-cultural accord, communal connection, and a sense of belonging, but the very plural lives of import on display here are all Hemon’s—on the soccer field and off—from a Sarajevo swept helplessly into war to a Chicago swept as ever by wind and elusiveness (“the cold, inhuman beauty containing the enormity of life,” as he puts it), from vague triumphs to tragedies about which nothing is vague.
The book is an assemblage of personal discourses and reflections on a life story that appears to have entirely eschewed the mundane. The enthralling personal narrative that Hemon has mined to extraordinary lengths in his fiction is here shorn of fabrication and embellishment in prose no less dazzling. Hemon’s confidence and command of English (his second language), along with his persona as an erudite expat curmudgeon with a knack for wordplay, actually warrant all the Nabokov comparisons that get thrown his way. Readers familiar with Hemon’s fiction will recognize several themes and autobiographical elements, as his novels and stories have always borrowed liberally from his—there’s no better way to say it—book-worthy life. The Book of My Lives is not so much a conventional memoir as a cobbled-together collection of essays that looks to map a personal history, tracing lines and lives between the emotional, political, historical, and ontological terrain of two cities: Sarajevo and Chicago.
If there is an arc across these essays, it is the gradual maturation of Hemon’s worldview—with each passing accomplishment or catastrophe—from the solipsistic to the expansive. In the opening essay, partly about his boyhood struggle to adjust to a new sibling, Hemon conveys the explosion from interiority to exteriority, the momentous shock of what psychologists would call the Theory of Mind: the ability to understand another’s mental state as unique from our own. “Never again would I be alone in the world,” he writes, “never again would I have it exclusively for myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others.” This recognition sets the stage for Hemon’s explorations, expanding from the banal and intimate to the historical and worldly. Those lines also hint at one of his chief interests: the palimpsestic layering of emotional topographies atop geographical and political terrains. Hemon, for whom displacement (in its many physical and metaphysical forms) looms as a pervasive leitmotif, is at home in his homelessness. (Here, he is more akin to W.G. Sebald than Nabokov.)
Hemon has said in interviews that he’s repulsed by the tropes of the modern “confessional” memoir and that he seeks no redemption or sympathy in these personal accounts. This is clear when he unblinkingly delves into the dissolution of his first marriage in “Kennel Life” or his infant daughter’s mortality in “The Aquarium.” He presents these stories with the full weight of experience but also the almost clinical deftness of a consummate craftsman, not confessing but committing masterfully to prose—with no undue pathos—the calamities and catharses comprising a man’s life so terrifically made manifold.