Sarajevo Posts

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”

Aleksander Hemon, “The Book of My Lives”


Aleksander HemonThe situation of immigration leads to a kind of self-othering as well. Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past, with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiate the conditions of your selfhood under perpetually changing existential circumstances. The displaced person strives for narrative stability– here is my story!–by way of systematic nostalgia. p.17
 
I first came across Aleksander Hemon when I read his moving (and painful) essay, “The Aquarium”, in the New Yorker. ( http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium, 13 June 2011) It was about the loss of his second daughter, an infant, from a brain tumour. Then I read a brilliant interview by John Freeman published in How to read a Novelist: Conversations with writers ( First published in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/23/aleksandar-hemon, 23 February 2013 ). In it John Freeman observes that “Hemon has been widely praised for the unexpected images [ his] style creates, but it was not, he says, the hallmark of a writer trying to bridge here and there. It was deliberate, honed, and in some cases mapped out. ‘I wanted to write with intense sensory detail, to bring a heightened state.’ He is a sentence writer who counts beats as a poet does syllables.”

Aleksander Hemon was born in Sarajevo and has lived in Chicago since 1992. The Book of My Lives is his fourth book, but first nonfiction. It follows A Question for Bruno ( 2000), Nowhere Man ( 2002), The Lazarus Project ( 2008) and Love and ObstaclesThe Book of My Lives consists of 16 essays that were originally published elsewhere, such as The New YorkerGranta, and McSweeney’s. There were revised and edited for the memoir. The essays vary from time spent in Sarajevo, being with the family, eating his grandmother’s homecooked broth, to participating in a Nazi-themed birthday party for his younger sister and disappearing off to the family cabin on the mountain called Jahorina, twenty miles from Sarajevo, for weeks on end to read in solitude and peace. On one such visit, the American Cultural Centre called him to say he had been invited to America for a month. While he was there, the war broke out in Sarajevo and he could not return for many years. The second half of the book consists of essays documenting/coming to grips with the new life/experiences — of being an immigrant in America. 

The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legtimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belonging: as long as we know who we are and who we are not, we are as good as they are. In the multicultural world there are a lot of them, which out not to be a problem as long as they stay within their cultural confines, loyal to their roots. There is no hierarchy of cultures, except as measured by the level of tolerance, which, incidentally, keeps Western democracies high above everyone else. ….p.16
 

I read this book while travelling through Kashmir. In fact it took me a day to read, completely engrossed in it. It was a little surreal reading the essays while on holiday in Kashmir, especially those describing the conflict in Sarajevo, since the presence of the security forces, the freewheeling conversations with the locals about recovering from many years of conflict, or the tedious security checks at the airport are constant reminders of how fragile any society affected by conflict is. It is a memoir I would recommend strongly. A must.

Here are some links related to Aleksander Hemon that are worth exploring: Gary Shteyngart in conversation with Hemon http://chicagohumanities.org/events/2014/winter/little-failure-gary-shteyngart-aleksandar-hemon

Aleksander Hemon interviews Teju Cole, Bomb http://bombmagazine.org/article/10023/teju-cole

An interview in the Salon http://www.salon.com/2013/03/23/aleksandar_hemon_i_cannot_stand_that_whole_game_of_confession_i_have_nothing_to_confess_and_i_do_not_ask_for_redemption/

Q&A in the NYT http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/20/waiting-for-catastrophes-aleksandar-hemon-talks-about-the-book-of-my-lives/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Review in The Economist http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21575736-essays-exile-writing-survive

Aleksander Hemon The Book of My Lives Picador, Oxford, 2013. Pb. pp. 250 Rs 450 
11 Sept 2014 

Sean McMeekin “July 1914: Countdown to War”

Sean McMeekin “July 1914: Countdown to War”

July 1914

When we studied about WWI as children, our school textbooks would dismiss in one sentence the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary as being responsible for the war. In comparison Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War is a big fat book of nearly 470+ pages documenting the assassination, the aftermath in the month of July 1914, and the complicated politics. His account is packed with detail. It does not matter if one is unfamiliar with the nitty-gritties of the Habsburg Empire, the rising power of Russia etc. He makes the claim that the Great War  was “The War of the Ottoman Succession”. It will require a historian, especially of this period to do a scholarly critique of the book, yet it does make an important contribution to the avalanche of books being published in 2014–the centenary of World War I. 

July 1914: Countdown to War is packed with information without getting tedious, is strong on storytelling, making it very accessible to a lay reader too. It is worth reading. I found a print book useful to scribble notes in the margins but a book like this would do well to have a digital interactive edition.

Here are some links related to July 1914: Countdown to War and WWI literature. ( Now for similar articles from different parts of the world.)

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/feb/06/greatest-catastrophe-world-has-seen/ A review article by R. J. W. Evans on NYRB on a bunch of WWI books, including two by Sean McMeekin. ( 6 Feb 2014 issue)

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/05/27/the_house_of_habsburg_revisited_empire_nostalgia_austria_hungary_central_europe An excellent article on Foreign Policy by Simon Winder, “The House of Habsburg Revisited”. ( 27 May 2014.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOwaYNiJ6G8 In a discussion of his book, July 1914: Countdown to War,  historian Sean McMeekin reveals how a small cabal of European statesmen used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to initiate a long-awaited showdown among the Continent’s powers, ultimately leading to the start of World War I. In this talk he also says that many of the contemporary conflict flashpoints/battlefields are the same as those during WWI. (29 January 2014, The Kansas City Public Library. )

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/62227-the-war-that-fractured-history-100-years-on-wwi-books.html#path/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/62227-the-war-that-fractured-history-100-years-on-wwi-books.html A round up on Publishers Weekly of books on WWI, but does not mention any of Sean McMeekin. ( 9 May 2014)

Sean McMeekin July 1914: Countdown to War Icon Books, London, 2013. Pb. pp. 470. Rs. 599

3 June 2014