REVIEW: Aleksander Hemons' Remarkable World of Yearning, Displaced Immigrants


My Parents:  An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksander Hemon

MCD/Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 384 pp.                                  

 Aleksander Hemon’s characters, nearly all displaced immigrants, are by now familiar to readers of his novels and stories. Like the guy in the Li’l Abner comic strip who was stalked by a dark cloud, Hemon’s narrators carry the gloom of the Old World with them to North America. 

Born in 1964 in Sarajevo, Hemon came to the U.S. in 1992 on a cultural visa and, preparing to return to Bosnia, found that the Yugoslav army was bombarding his homeland. He was granted political asylum – good thing Trump wasn’t president, or we would have been deprived of a great writer – and chose to live in Chicago. He supported himself with a variety of odd jobs including washing dishes, parking cars, and even assisting a private detective. When he was 36, his short story collection, The Question of Bruno, was published to critical acclaim, all the more remarkable for someone who had studied English for only three years.  Its publication signaled the rise of the most intriguing literary émigré to reach our shores since Vladimir Nabokov. 

The association of Hemon with Nabokov, though, is misleading; given Hemon’s roughhewn prose and late blooming affair with the English language, he has more in common with Joseph Conrad, whose first novel in English was published when he was 38, and who, like Hemon, brought a decidedly non-English sensibility to the literature of his adopted country. But Nabokov’s influence must be given its due as Hemon told his first interviewers that he learned English by making lists of unfamiliar words from Nabokov’s novels. Nabokov learned English as a child from a tutor in Czarist Russia; it was practically a first language to him, though it is safe to say closer to the English of Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy than of Mark Twain.  The English Hemon mastered, as an autobiographical character in his third novel Love and Obstacles (2009) puts it, was “chewing gum American.”

Hemon’s books are as laced with American (and British) pop culture references as a Murakami novel:  Raymond Chandler, Sonic Youth, Miles Davis, Sinatra.  One of his short stories is titled “Stairway to Heaven”; another is called “Nowhere Man.” In one novel a pony-tailed pianist in an airport lounge plays “As Time Goes By.” 

My Parents:  An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You provide the context to Hemon’s remarkable body of work.  My Parents reconstructs the   past which shaped his parents; his mother was a Communist who “believed (and still does) in social justice, generosity, and a fair distribution of wealth” while his father “was born in 1936, just in time for World War Two, which was nasty and complicated around Prnjavor, where the ethnic mix, complicated even by Bosnian standards, offered myriad opportunities for massacres of civilians …” The Fascist Ustashe Party was so brutal to Croats and Muslims they “appalled even some Nazis.”

In retrospect, Hemon finds himself with a grudging respect for Josep Tito, “Say what you will about Tito and the postwar regime so centered around his personality that it barely outlived him, but under his leadership the party organized a resistance movement and liberated Yugoslavia.” He was “a clever, if authoritarian leader, positioning the country between the East and the West in such a way … that it could benefit from its distance and connections with each side.”

In socialist Yugoslavia “there was optimism a better future could be conceived of, and my grandparents’ generation’s hope that their children would have better lives was rapidly fulfilled.”  However, “My parents belonged to the generation that took crucial part in that work only to discover that it was all in vain.”

In the wake of the genocidal wars that shattered their country, the Hemons immigrated to Canada, where his mother “lost, figuratively and literally, everything that had constituted her as a person,” from property to ideology to her native language to her friends and family. “Overnight she became a nobody, she often said, a nothing.” His father took refuge from loneliness and cancer in beekeeping and sold up to a ton and a half of honey every year.

The fragmentation of Yugoslavia after Tito’s death in 1980 seems like a dress rehearsal for the turmoil that western  societies are going through today, and with the controversies surrounding the waves of immigrants into these countries, Hemon’s words are instructive: “The domain that my parents have built for themselves is possessed of perfect human sovereignty.  In it they do and create things that allow them to be themselves, to fashion who they are; this is where they have agency, a bubble outside of which they are reduced to passivity inflicted by history … Time they could not regain, but space they could, and so they did.”

When you finish reading My Parents, you can flip the book upside down, literally, for Hemon’s childhood memoirs. If the Nabokov-Hemon comparison is legitimate (and I promise not to bring it up again), This Does Not Belong to You would be Hemon’s version of Nabokov’s great autobiography, Speak, Memory, but  I’m fairly certain that Nabokov at a young age wasn’t listening, as Hemon was, to The Clash, David Bowie and Pink Floyd. The boy Aleksander saw America as “the land of bottomless, murderous entertainment the glimpses of which I caught on TV in the shape of Kojak and McCloud.”

Among his earliest memories are watching “Kaubojski filmovi” – cowboy films – with his mother: “To this day, Mama … stays awake for Rio Grande or Rio Bravo or Red River.” When he looked at himself in the mirror, “I wanted to be as funny as Jerry Lewis …”

But Hemon’s memoir is so much more than random recollection. It’s an essay on the nature of memory itself, “If it’s true that memories solidify into stories after the first recollection, then what I remember now are the stories  of memories that might have been the memories of stories,” and also the nature of time, contemplating the neighborhoods  of his childhood, he realizes, “I don’t know anyone who remembers that landscape.  I don’t know anyone who cares what was there before, because there was never a time without a time before, that’s how time works, time keeps everything from taking place at once, welcome to this world. Our life has no end in just the way our visual field has no limits.”

Memories, stories, fragments of a boyhood in Bosnia, whatever form they take and whatever definition they are given, flutter through his consciousness:  “A barrel of pickled cabbage in the balcony corner. The flat zinc boxes squeezed between the ribs of the radiator, filled with water to humidify the air in the winter. My mother speaking in a high-pitched voice of friendship into the mouthpiece of the black Bakelite phone.  These belong to me. The terrible infection of memories, they don’t go away, they float around the bloodstream like loose bacteria until they recognize the presence of others somewhere in the system and then, and then they all turn virulent … ”

Hemon yearns with Proustian passion to recreate his past, but  inevitably must concede that no word magic will ever conjure a true picture of lost Bosnia  After translating a Bosnian folk song that he recalls family members singing on a bus trip, Sarajevo, My Love,  he writes, “I will restore these verses into the original Bosnian, where it will be more present, but you will  not be able to read it. This does not belong to you. But neither does it belong to those who might read it in Bosnian, simply because it all happened a long time ago, to a small number of kids whose later lives were subsequently filled up to the brim with events large and heavy, and some of those kids have grown up to die, some too soon, some too late, no one on time.” The song, then, is “possible only in the wrong language, ever unbelonging.”

But now, thanks to his gift, it’s a memory as much ours as his.

Allen Barra writers about books for the Daily Beast and Truthdig.