Eloquence in the face of life: a review of Aleksandar Hemon's The Book of My Lives

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Part of my engrossment with Aleksandar Hemon’s collection of autobiographical essays, The Book of My Lives, is how smart he is. I don’t mean intellectual—although he’s clearly that too. I just mean perceptive, perhaps not surprising for a man who escaped war-torn Sarajevo at the age of 27. How skillfully and unstintingly he shares hard-earned, not inherent wisdom is a joy to behold. Hemon is not only a man who has had unspeakable tragedy and commonplace love and comedy happen to him, but who analyzes those things and can arrange and present them in an universal way. It’s not like The Book of My Lives is a self-help manual. Aptly titled, the essays map Hemon’s existence and displacements in roughly chronological order. Not all of them are heartbreaking, but the spectre of the future or eventually, the past, looms behind each.

Some of the value comes from the alien elements of Hemon’s experiences. How many of us had an ill-advised teenage party, born out of a pithily phrased sense that “there was nothing to do, and we were quickly running out of ways to do it”? How many of us themed that party as a Nazi orgy, and then watched in dismay as it became a national scandal in our Communist country? Expertly Hemon tears apart his personas throughout time, mercilessly delineating his own entitlement in his homeland and here--a show on state radio, an education with a professor who later turned out to be a mastermind of genocide, a lucky visit to the States right as the siege began, a first marriage just because they could. Hemon makes sure all his actions have a clearly researched motive, at least in hindsight, which is helpful for a reader in understanding him--and themselves.

As a person who found a refuge of sorts in Chicago myself, I connected with a young immigrant’s search for community and the list reasons that he does not wish to leave Chicago. In the essay about soccer, Hemon's skill with sketching character stands out as he captures his teammates and their disparate talents and paths to the field. He is a master of using one subject-- soccer, cooking, chess--to explore another. The final essay about his young daughter Isabel’s brain tumor and subsequent drawn-out expiration is--well, it confirmed some ideas I’d had about grief. It feels adult in a way so many pieces about death don’t. Not to say that that’s the only reward the situation holds--it holds none. But only a mature writer and person could have dissected the death of someone so dear so well without collapsing into total maudlinity.

This is possibly the vaguest review I’ve ever written, and for that, my apologies. Hemon wrote stunning essays, with chiseled segments and flakes of sharp, sharp prose. He is an architect of his own story’s morals and scenes. While he claims to be uncomfortable writing nonfiction, this is either nonsense or his discomfort makes for a helluva collection. You must read this book.

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