Readers familiar with Aleksandar Hemons work will find ample amusement when they come upon a passage in his new essay collection, The Book of My Lives, where he recounts attempting to translate works from English with a friend in his college days.
By EDWARD HART
Special to The Star
They quit the first book after the first paragraph. On a second attempt, they never reached the second page. Our English was not very good at all, Hemon recalls.
The implicit humor here is that a man who didnt begin writing in English until 1995 has firmly established himself as one of the best prose stylists in any language at work today.
The Book of My Lives captures the variegated and diffuse lives of a writer whose life has been burnished by war, death and constant flux. Hemons stunning ability to merge the personal and the political, the existential with the banal is one of his most remarkable traits, and this collection is a compelling argument for his emergence as a vitally important writer.
The essays collected here chart his youth in Sarajevo and the geopolitics of childhood; the hedonism of his young adulthood as Yugoslavia splinters and war breaks out around him; his immigration to American and the feeling of being shorn of his country and his identity.
There is something to be admired in every essay in The Book of My Lives. But the most moving and raw piece is the final one in the collection, The Aquarium. It opens with Hemon and his wifes discovery that their 9-month-old daughter, Isabel for whom the collection is dedicated has a form of childhood cancer so rare that only 3 in 1 million children are diagnosed with it each year.
Isabels odds of survival are almost insurmountable, and the essay is disturbing and devastatingly beautiful. After Isabel dies, Hemon writes, her indelible absence becomes an organ in our bodies whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.
Hemon will probably never be an upbeat writer. His work is imbued with brooding and pensive melancholy. But hes adept at capturing a range of voices and tones, mixing in the absurd with the macabre:
The cafeteria in the hospital basement was the saddest place in the world and forever it shall be with its grim neon lights and gray tabletops and the diffuse foreboding of those who have stepped away from suffering children to have a grilled cheese sandwich.
Hes also a deeply philosophical writer. Few writers are so willing to casually toss around words like ontological and metaphysical. And many of his best essays touch on themes of cosmic significance or show the confluence of his personal narrative with the machinations of history.
His acute humor is derived from his ability to quickly pivot from more thoughtful ruminations to a quotidian observation or trivial detail. Take, for instance, when he reflects on the birth of his sister:
Never again would I be alone in the world, never again would I have it exclusively for myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others. Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself.
While each essay holds together remarkably well, theres something askew about the internal logic of the collection as a whole. Hemon repeats narratives as set pieces for the same effect in different essays. And the overlay between his fiction and nonfiction can be tiresome for those who have read his novels and short stories.
These are quibbles though. This collection is resplendent, full of prose that only Hemon could write, and worth reading for the sentences alone.
In one passage, Hemon recalls a professor in college telling his class about the book his daughter had begun writing at the age of five. She had titled it The Book of My Life, but had written only the first chapter. She planned to wait for more life to accumulate, he told us, before starting Chapter 2.
Readers of The Book of My Lives will certainly come away eager for Hemon to start writing his next chapter.