Review: The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of My Lives

I had never heard of Aleksandar Hemon. The book cover too looked as if it belonged to fiction, which I rarely got myself to read. It was one of the several books I picked up, turned around to read the description and put back on the shelf of the store. The mention of Sarajevo at the back caught my eye and I wondered if it belonged to fiction, historical fiction or non-fiction. So I read the Acknowledgements and few random pages in between to make sense of it. It was quite some time since Sarajevo had captivated me. The Bridge on the Drina was for long in my wish list, Ulysses’ Gaze had left me spellbound and the whole romanticism associated with Balkan names with difficult pronunciations outmaneuvered my resistance if any to buy it.

It consists of sixteen essays, each touching upon an important them in the author’s life. In the first one, The Lives of Others, he recalls an incident where he almost choked his younger sister out of jealousy, “the attention they paid to her was wholly, infuriatingly undeserved: she did nothing but sleep and cry and undergo frequent diaper changes. I, on the other hand, could already read small words, not to mention speak fluently, and I knew all kinds of interesting things: I could recognize flags of various countries; I could easily distinguish between wild and farm animals; cute pictures of me were all over our house”. His writing style is not something out of the extraordinary but the stories he weaves have an impaling effect on the observing mind, playing with sub-narratives and conjuring up a climax but then just leaving it there – not being too verbose or overstating.

In other essays, he describes his childhood in Sarajevo, his family, his friends, the girls, the football, the birthday parties, the eccentricities, et cetera. There are two essays which would leave one moist eyed. The first one being on description of his canine friend(s) under Dog Lives, and the second being The Aquarium in which he etches into our memories something which is his: the death of his younger daughter. Hemon paints the stories of his life with such an ease that you feel you have always known him, been around him and seen him. His failures at math become yours; youthful excesses pull you in; the solitary moments up on the mountain cabin give you a sense of calm against the hurricanes of life; the war torn Sarajevo losing a character of its own makes you melancholic of a place you (probably) never have been to.

The trials and tribulations of finding one’s past in the unknown present is what underscores his early years in Chicago, where he took political asylum after the war broke out between the Serbs and Bosnians. Contemplations of his towards a suicidal solution are evident, “one day I stood on Winthrop Avenue looking up at the top of a building on whose ledge a young woman sat deliberating whether to kill herself, while a couple of guys down on the street kept shouting, “Jump!” They did so out of sheer asshole malice, of course, but at the time their suggestion seemed to me a reasonable resolution to the continuous problem we call life”. Entrenching a new place as home is a nervous exercise, and he succeeds over time to do that and pens on returning from Sarajevo to Chicago, “returning from home, I returned home”. Such lines as the last one are what make you think over the essence of our lives and the deeply rooted notion of belonging.

The Book of My Lives is a resplendent treatise to relive the beauty of the past and the hidden yet overbearing horrors of war. The interweaving of the faceless war with his personal life is what makes this unputdownable. A slight damper however is the fact that all the essays have appeared earlier in volumes of Guardian, New Yorker, New York Times, Granta, Playboy and others. This wasn’t mentioned at the beginning or on the front cover. And hence there is some amount of repetition here and there. This doesn’t dim the attractiveness of the collection, but a more forthright approach would have been appreciated as being honest. I felt cheated when I got to know of this.


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