Reading Aleksandar Hemon: Where Biography Meets Fiction
“And what did he think of Sarajevo? Did he like it? Could he see how beautiful it had been before it became this cesspool of insignificant, drizzly, suffering?”
- Aleksandar Hemon, “The Noble Truths of Suffering, Love and Obstacles
If you have encountered the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, citizen of Chicago since 1992, you know the pleasures and sustenance his work offers. And if this is your first introduction, then welcome. Hemon, who won a MacArthur Grant in 2004, has published four compelling books of fiction. His short stories and novel, inflected by personal experience, loss and memory, probe what it means to be deeply affected by war, and what's inexplicable accompanying it. In Hemon’s case: what it means to exist within the experience of war, yet remain outside.
Hemon left Sarajevo, his home, for a cultural exchange in Chicago just before the start of the Sarajevo siege in the spring of 1992, which marked the beginning of a bloody, three-year conflict, and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Hemon, age twenty-seven-and-a-half and working as a “youth press” journalist in Bosnia, could not safely return to Sarajevo; he made a new home in Chicago, learning English and working as a Greenpeace canvasser, among other workaday jobs, and soon composing in English.
The Question of Bruno, Hemon’s first book, was published in 2000, followed by Nowhere Man in 2002; reviewers compared his writing—rich in its unusual and intoxicating use of language—to Nabokov's. As Hemon’s prose has become slightly less quirky, without losing the unexpected words and metaphors that contribute to its edgy freshness, his themes have become more overtly complex, visible in his “big book,” as he put it to LA Times writer William Georgiades, The Lazarus Project, published in 2008, which was followed, a year later, by the story collection, Love and Obstacles. A much anticipated nonfiction work, The Book of My Lives, arrives this March.
The Lazarus Project, a novel containing a writer (Brik) as narrator, character and subject, with a subject (Lazarus) of his own, interrogates the relationship between truth and fiction; lies and greater truths; the ways people dissemble; and the conundrum of inhabiting experiences that are not yours right alongside those that are—the plight of the writer and exile. Hemon has said of the work, to Georgiades in the LA Times, “The book is not about solidarity; it's about isolated people struggling alone with the forces of history."
Lazarus, of the title, is an actual historical figure: a Jewish immigrant to Chicago in the early 1900s, who was shot by the police and accused of being an anarchist. Historical details mingle with the telling of Lazarus’s story, by Brik, alongside Brik’s own narrative. Brik is himself an immigrant to Chicago, from Sarajevo, struggling with his research, the story of Lazarus, his marriage and America, and the recently concluded war in his homeland. Brik travels to Ukraine, and subsequently Sarajevo, ostensibly to research Lazarus’s origins and to recreate some of his journey to America, with his friend Rora, a photographer and enigmatic friend from Sarajevo. Brik was in America during the war, his biography running parallel to Hemon’s own, while Rora remained in Sarajevo. Rora’s tales, often illusive, augmented by Bosnian jokes (adding levity to the narrative as well as their conversations), make Brik long for more, his longing infused with guilt.
Hemon, following a reading from his fourth book, the collection Love and Obstacles, at Hunter College this past December, told the audience, “[Without imagination] we are confined in what we know. We have to imagine our lives, alternative lives, for ourselves and for others.” Earlier stating, “You should be writing what you’re scared of— Or at least try.”
Lived-experience and felt-experience blur in Hemon’s fiction. Sometimes what we have not seen firsthand, what we have missed or been spared of, mars us as deeply as what we have encountered in our own daily lives. We see this with the character of Brik in The Lazarus Project (who also appears in earlier works); and we see it through Hemon’s biography and his other fiction. In December, Hemon made a point of reminding his audience, “Now, I have no experience of war. I was here in this country.”
And yet, Hemon’s writing—his engagement with the subject of Sarajevo internally, which is manifested in his (fictional) writing—is replete with experience of war, even if he was not present to experience it. If we break this down, if we interpret, by looking at the writing, the author’s life, and the characters’ lives, we find a man intensely aware of what he narrowly missed—his country at war; his home; his city under siege with compatriots; friends and family suffering; queuing for water as snipers shoot at them; scarcity of food; homes with boarded up windows and no electricity; friends and family dying, while the world stands by, detached.
Mario Vargas Llosa writes in his 2010 Nobel Lecture, when describing the painful shock of learning at age 11 that his father, always known by him to be dead, was alive:
Literature stopped being a game. It became a way of resisting adversity, protesting, rebelling, escaping the intolerable, my reason for living. From then until now, in every circumstance when I have felt disheartened or beaten down, on the edge of despair, giving myself body and soul to my work as a storyteller has been the light at the end of the tunnel, the plank that carries the shipwrecked man to shore.
Writing and reading serve as a kind of salvation, sometimes offering an escape from the life we are living, sometimes affording us passage (back) into it. In 2011, Hemon published “The Aquarium,” a beautifully written and constructed, thoughtful and haunting personal history (memoir), in The New Yorker. The essay, included in the forthcoming The Book of My Lives, is devastating—its central subject matter is the severe illness of Hemon’s second child—and all the while the reader is pressed along not only by the tautness of the prose, but by its sense of urgency. And yet, Hemon has remarked of personal writing, in a BookForum interview with Kera Bolonik, “Memoir is not subject to interpretation. That is antithetical to literature.”
But what do we, and Hemon, mean by literature, a term that often has an unnecessarily elitist ring to it. Hemon recently penned a Preface to Psalm 44, a remarkable and shattering novel by Danilo Kiš, fellow countryman (though Kiš is a Serbian Jew, writing after the Holocaust). Hemon introduces the book with fervent intensity:
Literature…is nothing if not continuous ethical and aesthetical engagement with human experience and history; one reads/writes literature in order to confront the hard questions of human existence; entertainment might not be applicable. … [L]iterature is inherently democratic, as it is the way for everyone and anyone who can read to enter the difficult and vast field of everything that comes under humanity.
Hemon spoke in a related vein last December, telling the Hunter College audience, “Literature should be difficult, and by this I don’t mean obscure or impenetrable,” adding, “I gravitate toward difficult things.” Later, in responding to a question about the writing process, Hemon noted, “It ought to be reasonably describable and then repeatable.” Adding, it’s not.
Similarly, while Hemon’s stories, novels and essays consistently engage with themes of loss, often overtly, he enters the experiences in different ways: as a participant in the war, as a bystander, as an outsider, as a historical figure; through different nationalities and cultural assumptions. Lazarus, the subject of Brik’s book, in Hemon’s book, is a Jewish immigrant a century before Hemon (or Brik); his life is complete, finished, and yet too scarcely documented and maligned during the period in which he lived. Here, only imagination can give him life, his life, and by extension those around him, extending as far forward as Brik, or as Hemon.
Writers know that parts of her/himself enter into the most unlikely, and dissimilar, of characters. And there are ways in which the “self” of autobiography or memoir, as discussed by the academic Paul John Eakin, is constructed too; this narrator, this person, cannot be fully represented on the page, just as an individual spends a lifetime constructing, reconstructing and repeating experience, through action and through memory, and through writing.
Paul Auster writes, in his intense and form-bending memoir, The Invention of Solitude, of “Memory as a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which a body sits. As in the image: ‘a man sat alone in his room.’” In memoir, the room—of the mind and of the book—contains this same loneliness, while holding the capacity to grow populated, crowded with persons gone—not truly in the room, the space, of the mind—replete with loss. And yet loss holds the potentiality for more: through literature.
Aleksandar Hemon did not live in Sarajevo during the siege; he did not die—he could have. Haunting knowledge, capable of inducing guilt and anger. The what-ifs merge with the what-did. The choices, in memoir and in fiction, of which stories are told and how they are told come from a related space of creativity. In both fiction and narrative nonfiction, we are composing. Memoir is more than reality, in much the same way that fiction is more than reality: it must stand independent, must hold an entire credible world; it must contain urgency and insight; it must open possibilities for further thought, for (further) imagination. Memoir is assembled from materials of truth and experience in order to assemble greater truth, a whole bigger than its parts.
“I was afraid that shouting might wake up the dead,” Brik tells us in The Lazarus Project. The anxiety expressed here suggests the tensions of literature. One role of writing is to “wake the dead,” the dead thoughts in our mind, those stultified, those snuffed out. The reader struggles with these sorts of questions—the ghosts of history and the silenced—in the best of books; and the writer does too, in the writing and in the narrative itself: there is a tension between what can be looked at and what cannot be borne and what can be said and what rests silent but shows its presence through this silence. Sometimes what can’t be borne, or born, demands fiction, whether the “made-up” is a protective barrier or an enhancement; in this case, imagination assists in providing the most honest account. And sometimes a story demands an adherence to actual facts and the honest and probing engagement of the author with his/her subject and “what happened,” which is closely related to what did not happen (an ingredient of both fiction and memoir), a different truth.
“Our memories are dependent on details…on involuntary perceptions,” Hemon pointed out at Hunter College, sharing ways in which details prompt his fiction, enriching and forming what he writes. Without a doubt, these same skills came to bear in “The Aquarium,” a devastating page-turner, bearing similarities, in a reader’s memory, to Danilo Kiš’s fictional rendering, in Psalm 44, of a woman’s time in a camp at the end of the Holocaust. This parallel risks appearing overblown; but this is precisely what speaks to the importance of self and urgency, the importance of a story to tell—true, imagined, or somewhere in between. In the hands of a master writer, the story rises above the plodding mundanity of life, even the tragedy therein. Surely, this is what we mean by literature; this is what we need, and why we read.
Hemon writes of Psalm 44, in the Preface: “The greatness of Kiš’s work lies in his unflinching willingness to confront and (re)imagine the horrors of history as experienced by human beings. The aim of his work is not to bear witness…but to reconfirm the value of individual experience….”
In the face of the inconsolable—events that were unimaginable, unreal—stories bring us respite, alongside pain; they bring us understanding; they bring us memory, and history, and responsibility. Hemon’s writing accrues these roles and this heft, whether his stories, his novel or his personal essay (“The Aquarium,” a container for grief; yet certainly unable to contain it). We shall soon see, surely, the same grasping for understanding within The Book of My Lives, Hemon’s memoir(s)—if we dare employ the single misaligned word, for the many lives of such a rich and enriching writer.
Kara Krauze is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: mtkr, J Voves (Flickr, Creative Commons).