Book Review: "The Book of My Lives," by Aleksandar Hemon



“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” 

― Haruki MurakamiWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running



Rumi, the Tadjik poet, once said that a "... wound is the place where the Light enters you." This seemingly simple quote explains a vastly varied spectrum of human experiences, and our innate ability to seek meaning, even out of the most unfavorable ones. The poet seems to welcome pain, celebrate it even, as a means of transformation into something new, walking away from the Dark that every painful experience threatens to drown us in. Life metes out pain and joy in equal measure, with a blind eye, and in our post-Freudian fetish for therapies, we might probably be missing out on what is therapeutic to begin with...

Aleksandar Hemon's autobiographical account - "The book of my lives" - is a refreshing exercise that seeks to move away (subconsciously, perhaps?) from merely using the action of emoting as a closure, to emoting for the purpose of sharing, exploring and growing. A collection of revised essays and articles that were previously published at various times and venues, it is unlike a true autobiography in the sense of chronology - it forms a cohesive narrative that describes Hemon's transformative process, but tends to skip and jump over the actual years. 

Beginning with the author's first recollection of a sense of self (at the age of four), when faced with an 'other' object of attention in the household (his younger sister), Hemon explores the theme of "Us Vs Them," a continuing theme that spans generations, countries, and cultures, in his journey from Sarajevo to Chicago. We witness the growing divide in a child's consciousness as it is first separated from the concept of a 'whole' family, to a later experience of distancing his playmates (due to their origin), defending their raja, or neighborhood-gang from other rajas, to eventually watching the city (and the country) that he loved plunge into a bloody conflict, again based on the ubiquitous divide between "us" and "them." Hemon remarks with uncanny accuracy, that a child has to be taught to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, territory, or allegiance; all leading to a terrible sense of insecurity that permeates every aspect of our society. 

In an essay that will resonate will anyone who has been an immigrant, and has found themselves in the mean position of this bi-cultural pendulum, he remarks on the various ways the human mind tries to process this dislocation -- a displacement in space, in time, in identity, in cultural and social values -- with a constant comparison between 'us' and 'them,'  between the old and the new, between what is ours and what is foreign, between the perceived intimate and the experienced obscure. Such comparisons often stem from the everyday, trivial examples ( 'Our food is better than theirs', 'our people smile often on the street, but not them' ) that hide the insecurity of watching a known, loved way of life being eclipsed, if not replaced outright, by a new, frightening way of life; but have a tendency to quickly escalate into something uglier, if left unchecked by society as a whole. 

Although a majority of the essays touch on his life in Sarajevo before and during the bloody conflict, the tone is not apocalyptic, but that of a measured fondness. There is an equanimity in his recollections that is some part hesitation/reticence, other parts closure, and in other portions, an acceptance of how he came to be his present self. 

Some of the most touching essays are not of his life 'there,' but of his new life in Chicago. These essays (loved the one about football) show us that in spite of the horrific losses that Hemon suffered during the war, a part of his artistic sensitivity and youthful optimism not only survived the transplant, but continues to thrive in his new world. 

But Hemon is ultimately human, and subject to the condition of human suffering, an indiscriminate judge, jury and executioner who often strikes down a tree on the most cloudless, sunny day possible. In the most devastating essay of the collection, he chronicles the slow, painful ordeal of losing his daughter Isabel to a very rare tumour. The narrative describes the emotional and physical upheaval in their lives, and the coping mechanism that their younger daughter Ella developed to process the suffering that she was witnessing, but was too young to fully comprehend. Ella introduced an imaginary brother, Mingus, an inflatable blue alien (on the book cover) - who substituted her sister during her absences due to the illness. In many ways, the overarching narrative comes back a full circle -- whereas Aleksandar imagined his younger sister as an enemy (although he loved her unconditionally), Ella perceives the real threat (illness) in the guise of an imaginary sibling who helps her through the worst times. It is an exquisite lesson about the many lives that we lead, as we grow through our lives, as readers, as an audience, and as fellow humans.
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