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The Flimsiness of Difference

By (March 1, 2013) 2 Comments

The Book of bookofmylivesMy Lives

By Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus, Giroux

Sarajevo, 1986: six years before the siege—when tanks and sniper rifles would assault the city and leave thousands of civilians dead—a girl named Isidora turned twenty. To celebrate, she decided to host a Nazi-themed cocktail party. Young men arrived in black shirts and tall boots, their hair slick with oil.  Women came in dresses mimicking the gowns worn at lavish Nazi parties supposedly thrown during the German occupation. Aleksandar Hemon was cast as a Ukrainian collaborator. In Isidora’s kitchen, he drunkenly proposed demonstrating against Yugoslavia’s first president, Josip Broz Tito, who’d helped liberate the country from Nazi control. Strangers listened closely. His younger sister played the noble Communist spy, a role modeled after the heroes of Yugoslavian socialist movies Isidora and her friends watched (and probably mocked). As Hemon writes in his essay “The Kauders Case,” from his new nonfiction collection The Book of My Lives, the party was supposed to be performance art, complete with mayonnaise swastikas and a makeshift prison where Hemon’s sister was detained.

But then State Security agents learned about the gala. Hemon was ordered to visit their offices, where he was interrogated about the party and his ties to the growing fascist sentiments among Yugoslavia’s youth. “It was really just a performance, a bad joke at worst,” Hemon attempted to explain.  He was a literature student at the University of Sarajevo, more concerned with composing “irrelevant poetry” than overthrowing the government.  Thirteen hours later the agents let him go, but the ordeal only got blown further out of proportion.

The names of the “Nazi Nineteen” were soon revealed to the outraged public.  There followed a frenzy of misunderstanding: citizens demanded punishment; Hemon was shunned by neighbors and classmates (students boycotted an English class he attended); and Isidora “fled with her family to Belgrade and never came back.” Although the hullabaloo eventually subsided, replaced by more genuine political discord, this experience revealed to Hemon the thin line between fiction and truth—how fiction can indeed transform into truth. “The whole thing felt to me like reading a novel in which one of the characters—a feckless nihilistic prick—had my name…The doubts about the reality of the whole thing kept nagging at me for a long time,” Hemon writes. His sense of confusion amplified when he learned that Isidora had adopted her role as a fascist in real life:

Belgrade in the nineties was fertile ground for the most virulent fascism, and [Isidora] was at home there.  She had public performances that celebrated the rich tradition of Serbian fascism. She dated a guy who would become a leader of a group of Serbian volunteers, cutthroats, and rapists known as the White Eagles, operating in Croatia and Bosnia at the time of the war.  Later, she would write a memoir entitled The Fiancée of a War Criminal.  Our friendship had long ceased, but I could not help questioning what had happened—maybe the fascist party had been concocted by her fascist part, obscure to me.

Hemon admits that hints of Isidora’s political inclinations seem hard to miss in hindsight. Yet, as the events were unfolding, he could not imagine her transformation from indulging in revolutionary fantasies to becoming an actual revolutionary.

The calamity that results when imagination fails us drives The Book of My Lives, Hemon’s first collection of essays. Here Hemon, who has published four books of fiction, recounts experiences from his childhood in the streets of Sarajevo to his current life as an American author. These diverse essays are united in their reference, whether explicit or subtle, to the Bosnian War, which consisted of extensive human rights abuses including genocide, ethnic cleansing, and systematic rape, the events of which Hemon only narrowly avoided. His essay “Lives of a Flaneur” discusses how before the Bosnian War began in 1992, Hemon worked as a journalist for a youth press, editing the culture pages. By luck or fate or coincidence, he received an invitation from an American Cultural Center representative just before civil war broke out, and boarded a plane to Chicago for what was supposed to be a month-long exchange program.  While he was traveling, paramilitaries took up battle positions and the Siege of Sarajevo began. Filing for asylum in the States, Hemon watched the news helplessly as the streets of his native country were strewn with bullets and bodies.

Hemon’s novels and stories are deeply informed by his experiences as a refugee who serendipitously escaped the horrors of war. As such, it’s fitting that his language often captures the unexpected banality of violence: “Sometimes one can see two or more dogs fighting over a cat, tearing apart a screaming loaf of fur and flesh” (The Question of Bruno); “A fly buzzed against the windowpane, as though trying to cut through it with a minikin saw” (Nowhere Man); “a copse of trees like toothpick tombstones” (Love and Obstacles); “[he] stands frozen, holding his breath, exhaling with relief as the young man dies, the gun smoke slowly moving across the room, like a school of fish” (The Lazarus Project).  The effect of such juxtaposition isn’t somber in tone, but rather livens the prose with a macabre sense of humor.

Transforming reality through imagination is a critical aspect of a fiction writer’s job, one Hemon executes with a strange combination of whimsy and brutality. And his ability to write in the space between reality and imagination translates well into his essays.  The book’s opening piece, “The Lives of Others,” recounts Hemon’s childhood, when he roamed his neighborhood with his raja, a group of neighborhood boys who banded together to bully other gangs. Hemon employs the language of warfare when describing their juvenile activities:

Once we waged a successful campaign against a bunch of teenagers who mistakenly thought that our Park was a good place for smoking, drinking, and mutual fondling.  We threw at them rocks and wet sand wrapped in paper, we charged collectively at the isolated ones, breaking long sticks against their legs as they helplessly swung their short arms.

The boys, in their desire to inflict pain, were able to transform mere paper into something powerful and destructive—a symbolic twist that Hemon returns to throughout the collection. As Isidora played a fascist before actually becoming one, in Hemon’s mind these childish war games presaged the actual warfare that ravaged Sarajevo just a few years later. Likewise, in “The Book of My Life,” one of Hemon’s early mentors, Professor Nikola Koljević, undergoes an unimaginable transformation. A literature professor at the University of Sarajevo, Koljević went on to become a proponent of ethnic cleansing through his leadership in the Serbian Democratic Party and was, ironically, responsible for “the destruction of hundreds of thousands of books.” What is it, Hemon wonders, that transformed this thoughtful Shakespearian scholar into an advocate for genocide?

hemonThroughout his collection Hemon writes about “the flimsiness of difference.” He suggests there is a line so thin it is often invisible—a line that separates us from them, good cops from bad, friends from enemies. And with the examples of Isidora and Koljević, the line, Hemon seems to believe, can exist inside a single individual: a person can be good and bad at once, a friend and an enemy. How Hemon perceives these individuals depends on the way circumstances transformed their relationships. This difficulty in observing the shift between change and sameness exists also in his relationship to his homeland.

Upon returning to Sarajevo after the war, Hemon writes,

It wasn’t easy for me to comprehend how the siege had transformed the city, because the transformation wasn’t as simple as one thing becoming another. Everything was fantastically different from what I’d known and everything was fantastically the same as before.

Reconciling the city as it existed before and after the siege is impossible for Hemon; he was precluded from witnessing the shift that rendered Sarajevo at once intimately familiar and absolutely foreign. All he can do is compare before and after. It’s as if he left the city when all its flowers were blossoming, and returned after they’d died; the task he’s set up for himself is to describe the effects of the frost that brought about this transformation—except he was not there to witness the winter. When these transformations occur inside us, Hemon proposes, they become even more difficult to detect.

Throughout this book Hemon writes about his own transformations, most explicitly in “The Lives of Others,” its opening essay. The very first anecdote Hemon shares with his readers is about the birth of his sister.  When his mother returned with her from the hospital, Hemon did not welcome this new member of the family: “I wanted everything to be the way it was, the way it already used to be.”  To Hemon, his sister was “the soot-skinned not-me, the other” and he set out to “exterminate her as soon as an opportunity presented itself.” When no one was looking, he attempted to strangle her (before realizing, in the midst of the act, that he “was terrified with the possibility of losing her”). Like the paper grenades his raja threw at outsiders, Hemon makes a connection between his childish fantasy to destroy what is unfamiliar and the destructive reality of war. By loading the language of childhood play with terms of otherness and extermination, Hemon forces his readers to consider how adults during the Bosnia conflict were able to commit such atrocities. Did the gunmen shooting civilians in Sniper’s Alley during the Siege of Sarajevo imagine the lives of their victims before they pulled the trigger? Perhaps Hemon wants his readers to understand that the ability to kill another human being comes from simultaneously imagining the victim is irreconcilably “other,” while failing to imagine his or her unique humanity.

The final essay, “The Aquarium,” is about the transformative power of imagination and its woeful inadequacies. This piece opens with Hemon and his wife, Teri, taking their nine-month-old daughter, Isabel, to the hospital for a checkup, where she was diagnosed with a rare and malignant brain tumor. As Isabel grew sicker and sicker, Hemon’s older daughter, Ella, started telling stories of a brother embodied in the form of an inflatable space alien doll.  This imaginary brother’s adventures infiltrated the family’s days and nights in the ICU. Hemon, in spite of his grief, recognizes the value of Ella’s alien companion:

Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—is a basic evolutionary tool of survival.  We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.

However, while Ella used her imagination as a coping device to translate an unwelcome reality into something more bearable, Hemon found that the reality of Isabel’s illness and tragic death was too concrete for abstraction.

In my eagerly, but not quickly enough, suppressed visions, I’d foreseen the moment of my child’s death.  But what I’d imagined against my best efforts was a quiet, filmic moment in which Teri and I held Isabel’s hands as she peacefully expired.  I could not have begun to imagine the intensity of the pain we felt as the nurses took out all the tubes and wires and everyone cleared out and Teri and I held our dead child—our beautiful ever-smiling daughter, her body bloated with liquid and beaten by compressions—kissing her cheeks and toes.  Though I recall that moment with absolute, crushing clarity, it is still unimaginable to me.

The Book of My Lives is an assortment of essays about how imagination is the only tool we have to reconcile—to simply live with—the terrible transformations that are inevitable in life. Though the collection’s entries were written over a period of more than ten years and cover a myriad of topics, there is remarkable cohesiveness to the book. The events presented are as various as life itself, epitomized in the playfully rendered sororicide Hemon attempts as a new brother; the victories and defeats of a roaming gang of children; birthday parties turned to political parties; a father’s grief when his daughter dies in the intensive care unit at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital. To read Hemon is to experience the peculiar similarities between experiences that seem utterly unalike. Even his metaphors show how his imagination collapses the difference between basic senses: Hemon describes how his father “reeked of an imminent heart attack” and that each spoonful of borscht provides “different shades of taste.” This ability to blur the boundaries of human experience makes Hemon’s work delightful even when he’s throwing paper grenades at your heart: he offers on each page a unique perspective on the world that seems both alien and yet stunningly familiar.

Taking flight on a family vacation, Hemon recalls in “Sound and Vision” ascending into the distance, sharing the headphones of a Walkman with his sister, listening to David Bowie: “Flying along the dividing line between night and sunset, on one side we could see complete darkness and on the other a horizon in spectacular flames.”  In the end, there is just one sky no matter what direction you look.

M.K. Hall teaches writing at New York University. Her work has appeared in American Literary Review, Why I Am Not A Painter, and What We Brought Back.