ARTS, CULTURE

Aleksandar Hemon published a new book

On Wednseday, 20 March, BiH American writer Aleksandar Hemon had a promotion of his new book – The Book of My Lives, and critics have said that it is his finest novel so far.

After producing four acclaimed works of fiction, Aleksandar Hemon has come out with his first collection of non-fiction, The Book of My Lives. It’s the perfect title. Perfect because Hemon’s life has been almost surgically split in two by politics and genocide. But as this beguiling and heart-felt memoir reveals, there are lives within those two lives. Lives within lives within lives. There is, it seems, no end to the lives of Aleksandar Hemon.

The story begins with the birth of Hemon’s sister in Sarajevo in 1969, when he was four and a half years old. The birth of this sister — this rival — is his introduction to the multiple fracturings that will come to shape his lives. In a crude and cruel attempt to return life to the way it used to be, the young boy tries to kill his rival, choking her, pressing his little thumbs against her windpipe, “as seen on television.” Mercifully, the attempted sororicide is thwarted by the victim’s sudden vomiting. The would-be killer lies his way out of trouble, arriving at this conclusion: “Throughout my boyhood I always knew more and better than my parents thought I did — I was always a little older than what they could see.” And this: “Never again would I be alone in the world, never again would I have it exclusively to myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others. Never again would I have all the chocolate to myself.”

After this chilling beginning, the book portrays a largely sunny boyhood spent in Sarajevo in the years of Tito and socialism, before the insanity and the bloodletting engulfed Yugoslavia. One of young Aleksandar’s earliest discoveries is the notion of the Other, reinforced by informal neighborhood gangs, their little wars, their marking and protecting of turf. One day at a birthday party for a friend named Almir, Aleksandar asks where his colorful, fluffy — and very un-socialist — sweater came from. Turkey, Almir replies. ”So you are a Turk!” Aleksandar says, trying to make a joke. But Almir starts crying and the party is ruined. Only later does Alexandar learn that Turk is a derogatory, racist word for a Bosnian Muslim. Which gives Hemon an opening for this dark bit of foreshadowing:

The book moves through other formative experiences — vacations, meals, army service, deep readings of Kafka and Mann — before arriving at Hemon’s earliest attempts to write. While enrolled at the University of Sarajevo in the 1980s, he joins a subversive performance group. He writes “self-pitying” poetry. He and his friends throw a birthday party with a Nazi theme, which backfires drastically. Hemon is interrogated by State Security, the Yugoslavian equivalent of the East German Stasi, he is ostracized, his family is placed under surveillance. Hemon has had rotten luck with birthday parties…

Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo, and now lives and works in the USA.

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