I took a class with Aleksandar Hemon a few years ago. I was enrolled in the graduate program in creative writing, where Hemon was one of the most popular instructors. I had to set my alarm clock early to get to the computer so that I could register for the class as soon as registration opened. I was one of the lucky ones who got into the course during the one minute it took to fill up. It was called “War, Violence and Suffering,” and the syllabus was filled with cheerful books like Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (1947), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). We analyzed the different ways writers represented the horrors that people inflict upon one another.
The subject of suffering is something of an obsession for Hemon, which is not surprising given his background. He grew up in Sarajevo under the communist dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, and he immigrated to Chicago just before Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide machine kicked into high gear. His previous books all address the four-year siege of Sarajevo; often from the perspective of a young man watching from the other side of the world as his home is destroyed.
The Book of My Lives is a memoir told through a collection of essays, all but one previously published. Hemon has revised the essays so that they cohere while still retaining their distinctive tones. He interweaves philosophical inquiry with autobiography so that this book about one man’s life (or lives, as the title asks us to consider) is really a story of all: all sons, all writers, all immigrants, all fathers.
In the first essay, “The Lives of Others,” Hemon tells of his sister’s birth, the childhood friends who made up his neighborhood raja, and his family’s immigration to Chicago. But the essay is really about the concept of otherness, about us and them. These concepts matter to everyone but are of particular importance in the context of immigration and ethnic cleansing.
Hemon’s life story is well known to anyone who has read his fiction, especially The Question of Bruno (2000) and Nowhere Man (2002). The characters in these works bear a striking similarity to the narrator of The Book of My Lives. What makes this collection worth reading, then, are the little details he uses to explain how he became the man he is. In “If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder,” for example, Hemon shows how the pick-up soccer games he played in Chicago connected him to his former life in Sarajevo as well as the broader immigrant community who share little but their new home and the love of the game. Chess, as he explains in “The Lives of Grandmasters,” plays a similar role, although its true significance is shown through Hemon’s lovingly Oedipal quest to defeat his father.
In the class I took with him, Hemon emphasized the fundamental subjectivity of reading. Echoing the reader-response theory of literary criticism, he considered it presumptuous when someone would talk about how a story affected “the reader,” since one person’s response was not universal. I was reminded of this view as I fought back tears while reading the collection’s final essay. “The Aquarium” tells of his infant daughter’s diagnosis, treatment, and death due to a malignant brain tumor. It was not the daughter’s death that struck me so much as the details he includes: the lullabies he sang as she slept on his chest, the imaginary friend his older daughter concocted to seemingly help her deal with the loss of her sister. My response was deeply colored by my own experience as a father to two young girls.
This collection is a tale of two cities, Sarajevo and Chicago, both of which will forever be home to Hemon wherever he happens to hang his hat. His love of both cities is apparent even—especially—when describing their faults. The Book of My Lives is a funny, poignant, and angry look at the lives of a complicated man in the places he holds most dear.