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Reviewed: The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

Splintered self.

The Book of My Lives
Aleksandar Hemon
Picador, 224pp, £20

To write about a life, you need a life to write about. Or you used to, anyway. Aleksandar Hemon, as his book’s title implies, has a surfeit. His are the multiple lives of the uprooted: the remembered life of his upbringing in Bosnia, the transposed life of the new immigrant to Chicago and the present life of the author, husband, father.

Hemon’s fiction also navigates displacement – his most recent novel, The Lazarus Project, flips between two stories of immigrants in Chicago, a century apart – but here, Hemon mines his own ruptured state. His mode is memoir or near-memoir. The Book of My Lives is composed of 15 stand-alone essays, all but one previously published in various magazines. A note at the back says the essays have been re-edited for the book but there are still overlaps and repetitions, odd clashes of tone.

In the first piece, “The Lives of Others”, there’s a strangely alienating (and alienated) analysis of immigrant psychology: “The funny thing is that the need for collective selflegitimisation fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn.”

It’s an interesting point but expressed in terms that make an admirer of his fiction anxious. “Self-legitimisation” is not a word you find often in the lithe, wired language of his novels. Nor would you find it in the more human accounts in this book. Much later, in “The Lives of Grandmasters”, he devastatingly describes his chess opponent Peter, “in whose throat the bone of displacement was forever stuck”. It’s a different context but also a different writer – we’ve switched from the remote jargon of the analyst to the poetry of the artist. The first essay was written in 2007, the second for this collection six years later: his writerly consciousness and mode of expression has changed. The book, then, is not the result of a singular effort but a collage of multiple effects and its inconsistencies are at times jarringly present.

Hemon’s chronology is loose, often swerving from present to past, his life divided – and multiplied – by the year 1992, when he left a threatened Bosnia just before the siege of Sarajevo, his home city. Much of the early part takes us back to his childhood, to the family borscht feasts and youthful antics, including a startling account of an ironic Nazi-themed cocktail party held in 1986 that resulted in Hemon and many of his friends being publicly shamed. The tale (the book is worth reading for this alone) offers an early sign of Hemon’s multiple personalities: as the after-effects of the misjudged theme became apparent, he felt he was “reading a novel in which one of the characters – a feckless nihilistic prick – had my name. His and my life intersected, indeed dramatically overlapped. At some point I started doubting the truth of my being.”

Not many memoirists are so harsh with their subjects but Hemon never lets himself off the hook. He mocks his deluded, youthful self, hung up on theory and cowardly irony, distracted by frivolous attempts to provoke the establishment. His self-directed viciousness is perhaps the residue of anxiety and depression he says he suffered in his twenties, which he interpreted as a “depletion of my interiority” (another self endangered) and treated by going alone to the mountain home of his parents to read in marathon stretches. His writing has the brutal edge of a brain accustomed to turning on itself.

Sometimes, the bullying is accompanied by a blackened wit. Hemon describes returning to Sarajevo in 1997, walking down a street and instinctively turning to look over his shoulder at a building. He can’t work out why he’s stopped, until he remembers that it once housed a cinema and he used to check the posters to see what was on.

His body, he writes, “had been trained to react to urban stimulation in the form of a new movie poster, and it still remembered, the fucker, the way it remembered how to swim when thrown in deep water”. As an anecdote, it is a poignant demonstration of how memories live on in the body, even when the mind has re-homed itself elsewhere. Yet it’s the “fucker” that sings. The surprise of it, the quick drop in tone. In Hemon’s flexible hands, it’s not just a swear word but a style.

Hemon is most frequently, lazily, compared to Vladimir Nabokov. The link is a compliment – they share an impressive, gymnastic facility with a language that wasn’t their first. However, this is no Speak, Memory. Nabokov’s memoir was conceived as a whole, a mammoth feat of recollection and execution written much later in life. Hemon’s has been gathered together and you can feel the draughts between the fragments. He also doesn’t have the firepower of Nabokov on the page (who does?) but he compensates with a sensitivity, honesty and open heart that is sometimes lost amid the high style of the Russian.

This is most evident in the final essay, “The Aquarium”, about the death of his baby daughter Isabel from a rare form of brain tumour. If his first essay suffered, in parts, from academic distance, then this is the counterpoint – Hemon recounts the harrowing events leading to Isabel’s final breaths with agonising immediacy. His questions still have the rawness of a living pain: “How do you leave your dead child behind and return to the vacant routines of whatever you might call your life?”

Hemon tries to work out what to call his life throughout these essays. He doesn’t come up with an answer. “The Aquarium” is the last piece in the book and ends in the suspended ache of loss. But loss, of all kinds, is Hemon’s subject. There can be no neat endings here.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem