After four novels, Aleksandar Hemon's fifth book is non-fiction, but it still mines the same territory of Eastern European protagonists struggling with their new lives in America, writes David Lepeska
Book review: Aleksandar Hemon's latest story reflects on Eastern European immigrants who struggle with displacement in America
The Book of My Lives
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Over the past decade, few emerging fiction writers have been showered with quite as much praise as the Chicago-based Bosnian-American Aleksandar Hemon. His first novel, 2002's Nowhere Man, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His second, The Lazarus Project, was named a National Book Award finalist for 2008 and in 2011 he was awarded the second annual Pen/WG Sebald Award, given to a promising author of three works of fiction. He has been compared, repeatedly and by respectable voices, to the great Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, while his envy-inducing facility with English - his second language - and ability to extract levity from tragedy has earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur "genius" grant.
Hemon's four works of fiction involve writerly eastern European protagonists juggling displacement and identity in America. Shifting styles, incorporating photos and dropping in wild new characters, he manages to make each seem fresh. Now comes The Book of My Lives, a non-fiction collection that, after years of what Hemon has called "anti-biographical fiction", begs the question: how many times can an artist mine the same material?
With enough talent, the number might be infinite. But for the vast majority of us mere humans, dipping repeatedly into the same well is likely, at some point, to deliver diminishing returns, regardless of changes in tone and genre.
Yet Hemon dives headlong into his own life, bouncing from his lively dissident young adulthood in Sarajevo to his journey to America, where he becomes a refugee and learns to embrace his displacement, as in weekly Chicago football matches among a United Nations of fellow emigres.
The challenge of finding gold in familiar territory often proves too much. Hemon rather blandly details how he initially created and inhabited the character of Alphonse Kauders - who appeared in his first book, The Question of Bruno - as a Sarajevo radio stunt. He recounts the real-life story of being a door-to-door fund-raiser for Greenpeace, an adventure detailed with greater wit and insight in Nowhere Man.
Later, Hemon, a master of the international identity crisis, tells us that he responds to the question, "What are you?" with, "I am complicated". In Nowhere Man, meanwhile, the hapless hero, Josef Pronek, is asked by his employer whether he is Muslim or Serb. "I am complicated", comes the reply.
Explicating one's fiction through autobiography is no sin. Yet returning repeatedly to well-trodden ground is, for a writer this bold and insatiable, an unusual detour. Elsewhere, Hemon details the great value of pet dogs during wartime and recounts his own attempt, at four and a half years old, to suffocate his baby sister. He also touches on the politics of terrorism and the moral troubles of war-ravaged Serbia.
Though it does trace a life, more or less, the book is episodic, almost epistolary - and for good reason. Most of the pieces have previously appeared elsewhere, many in The New Yorker (including one, titled Book of My Life, published back in December 2000). Highlights include a personal ode to his family's famous borscht ("you do not meet a friend over borscht, let alone share it with a date by romantic candlelight") and a short, sharp tale about surviving the horrors of army food. The latter ends with Hemon's mother and sister coming to visit him in a "dismal hotel" while on deployment in western Macedonia.
"Mother had dragged heavy bags of food on the many trains from Sarajevo and brought along a feast: veal schnitzels, fried chicken, spinach pie, even a custard cake. She spread a towel on the bed, as there was no table, and I ate from food containers, much of it with my fingers." Hemon tears up at the first bite: "As the perfectly mixed spinach and eggs and cheese and filo dough melted in my mouth, I felt all the love that could be felt by a boy of nineteen."
Even if more ground-bound than his oft-buoyant fiction, Book of My Lives still approaches greatness, particularly in a powerful and bracing finale (a story that appeared in The New Yorker in 2011 as The Aquarium and won a national magazine award). When his six-month-old is found to have a brain tumour, Hemon, unmoored from the day-to-day and bearing the heaviest of burdens, somehow summons the courage to remain watchful.
"One early morning, driving to the hospital, I saw a number of able-bodied, energetic runners progressing along Fullerton Avenue toward the sunny lakefront, and I had an intensely physical sensation of being inside an aquarium: I could see outside, the people outside could see me inside (if they somehow chose to pay attention), but we lived and breathed in entirely different environments."
As their precarious situation drags on, he and his wife move beyond social niceties: "I had a hard time talking to well-wishing people and an even harder time listening to them … And we stayed away from anyone who, we feared, might offer us the solace of that supreme platitude, God. The hospital chaplain was prohibited from coming anywhere near us." The story, and the book, closes with an understated yet profound hopefulness.
The Book of My Lives might be best viewed as Hemon Lite. Gone, for the most part, are the dazzling flights of language, the deft balancing of light and dark and precise distillations of the hilarity of the immigrant experience.
In hindsight, the book's very first line seems a telling admission: "I write fiction because I cannot not do it," Hemon writes in his acknowledgements, "but I have to be pressed into writing nonfiction." Ultimately, The Book of My Lives does not expose a writer with little left to say, but one on sabbatical, yet still taking risks.
David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National's Qatar correspondent. He lives in Istanbul.