Hemon’s Book of Lives

Aleksandar Hemon’s book of essays, The Book of My Lives reminded me that when I moved back home after failing to make it on my own after college, Yugoslavians were leaving their homes to escape what The Atlantic called “horrific acts of ethnic cleansing” in a “long, complex, and ugly” war.

Hemon’s book documents his search for a new kafana or personal infrastructure as expressed in his story, “The Lives Of A Flaneur.” It reminded me of the very important difference between refugees and immigrants. The former as he observes in “The Lives of Grandmasters” are “uncomfortable in the language they were forced to live in” while I have observed that the latter invites it. His parents are refugees living in Canada as a result of the war. Hemon willing left Sarajevo for Chicago with the hope of a better future. The same dream the persuaded my parents to leave Hong Kong for New York.

Hemon’s begins his book with a story of Shakespearean level drama. Motivated by jealousy, a four year old Hemon confesses to trying to kill his newborn sister. Fortunately, he is unsuccessful. By the end of the story his sister, Kristina, provides him with an important lesson in self identity. He tells his first story in seven parts. As you progress from part one to the last, Hemon reveals the significance of identity from different perspectives — From dominant culture in “Who Are We?” From a refugee’s perspective in “Us Versus Them.” And from the nature of identity itself in the last two parts of his story. 

Hemon’s exploration of identity is an interesting start to his essay collection but it is not representative of his writing in it. The first story at times felt too much like a collegiate Philosophy 101 course or a lackadaisical Sunday beer and cigarettes conversation between happily buzzed college students taking a Philosophy 101 course. “Sound and Vision,” the story that immediately follows is more demonstrative of Hemon’s wit and subtle (and somewhat sentimental) observations.

A death in Zaire and a theft in Italy leave the Hemon family (father, mother, teenaged brother and sister) stranded and penniless far from home. Hemon comments sardonically, “Coming from the promised land of socialism, we had no credit cards.” He then chronicles his father’s decline from a man who dispensed money from “his little man purse with the confidence of a man used to international currencies” to a man “sweating like a hysterical hog” in the hotel lobby intent on proving his suspicions that it was the hotel receptionist who stole the family’s vacation money.

The story has a happy ending though. His mother takes charge of the situation. She sells her gold necklace and demands everyone go on a family walk that evening. It is exactly what they need. Hemon writes, “I still cherish the memory, which contains all the smells, sounds, and visions from Lido… the parents holding hands, as if in love, the children licking gelatto paid for with family gold.” 

The title of the story is a nod to David Bowie. When their mother gives them a portion of the money received from the sale of her necklace, the Hemon children run to the record store and purchase David Bowie’s Low. “Sound and Vision” is one of the tracks on the album. I wish Hemon would have told us why he and his sister chose Bowie that day. Was it because they were both fans or because it was the only artists they recognized? I know why I might’ve chosen Bowie though I probably wouldn’t have chosen Low

That’s the best thing about Hemon’s book — It invites so many other conversations and tangents. His opening story sent me on a familiar but long unvisited trek through questions of cultural and ethnic identity as the American-born son of Chinese immigrants and the father of third generation Asian American kids. 

I’ve turned his story, “The Lives of Grandmasters” into a parable on education that weighs the notion of teaching versus enabling. Teaching being the pursuit of knowledge despite the challenges and enabling being simply giving the students the formula to a math problem, never asking them to explain why the formula works. In the story, a young Hemon plays chess with his father. His mother tells his father to let him win. His father refuses. Decades later, an adult Hemon plays chess with his aged father and wins; but questions whether he really won or his father finally let him win?

In his title story, “The Book of My Life,” Hemon tries to understand how the professor he idolized for bringing him to a “world that could be conquered by reading” could be so morally repugnant. Professor Koljevic, who is Hemon’s literary mentor, comes to support the genocide during the war. Hemon says he struggled to “unread books and poems I used to like — from Emily Dickinson to Danilo Kis, from Frost to Tolstoy — unlearning the way in which he (Professor Koljevic) had taught me to read them, because I should’ve known, I should’ve paid attention.” Though he does not come right out and say it, I believe the true source of his struggle is the part of himself that is concerned he is like the man he admired — the fear that he too could be capable of such atrocities. 

Perhaps Hemon had paid attention all along but ignored the hints and signs that the Professor dropped in conversation as inconsequential like that family member who says something racist at family gatherings. You bristle but regard the comment as harmless because “they don’t really mean it” and they are family after all. Or perhaps he rationalized those aspects of his Professor’s views so he could continue to indulge in their shared love of literature. True to his journalistic background, Hemon chronicles his professor’s rise and fall in his eyes and eventually in the eyes of the bloodthirsty regime that started the war. It is an interesting story that might have been more engaging with some of the Philosophy 101 from the first story. I want to know if Hemon still fear he might be a “sleeping Koljevic” who in the right circumstance with the right provocation would not think twice about playing an active role in the wholesale extinction of a people.

Hemon’s collection ends far from the darkly comical thesis on identity that began it. “The Aquarium” chronicles the loss of his youngest daughter to an ATRT (Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor), a highly malignant and rare disease. The title refers to the isolation Hemon and his wife felt coping while of their daughter’s disease — 

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 could see me inside (if they somehow chose to pay attention), but we lived and breathed in entirely different environments.

What distinguishes “The Aquarium” from being simply a father describing the torturous experience of watching his youngest daughter deteriorate from cancer is Hemon’s inclusion of the growth and development of his eldest daughter’s imaginary “brother.” The juxtaposition of the two is what makes his final story my favorite. He has described wanting to kill his sister, the travesties of war, the death of the family dog, and other tragedies but this one — this last story — is the one that made me want to read his other books. This is the story that demonstrates how powerful his journalistic way of storytelling can be.

There is not a lot of time spent on ambience or creating moods in Hemon’s stories. They are engaging because the details are so effectively arranged like the generations of family members in a professional portrait. 

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