Poundland Classics: Aleksandar Hemon

by Wayne Connolly

The Book of my Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon. Picador, 2013.

One afternoon I was hanging around in Poundland, as you do when you have too much time on your hands and nowhere in particular to go. After buying some dog treats, sticking plasters and a lightbulb, I poked around the bookshelves in the hope of finding something interesting to read. For a pound; just low-risk stuff.

I assumed from the title that The Book of my Lives was another lost attempt at a comic novel about time travel or amnesia (you now the sort of thing I mean) but I became more interested as soon as I saw that the author was originally from Bosnia and much of the book was about his early life in Sarajevo, a city I love. This random find turned out to be one of my favourite books from the past ten years.

I soon discovered that Aleksandar Hemon writes some of the deftest, most lucid and fluent prose I have ever read. He is a stylist without affectation who, as a second-language English speaker, relishes the potential of words and moulds them as though he were working with precious jewels or metal. He has been compared to Nabokov, but he has none of the master’s flamboyance. He is a fine craftsman but never a show off.

The Book of my Lives is the best sort of memoir - one that has a story to tell about exceptional times and lives, but also steps back to reflect on that story and about the themes that wrap around it. Hemon writes of his early life in Sarajevo, a journey to Zaire with his family in the course of his father’s work, and his almost accidental exile in the USA while the Balkan wars tore the region and his city apart. His insights into the experience of exile, and the sense of being permanently “other” in a new not-quite home, are powerful and profound. His story resonates even more as time goes on.

Hemon has written a number of other books of memoir and fiction. Some of them are very funny, and none of them are less than beautiful and deeply perceptive. He has also become a potent social and political commentator, and his knowledge of the Balkan experience gives him a unique perspective on current affairs in the USA. He was the first person I know who wrote that Trump is capable of genocide. At first I didn’t believe him, but as events have moved on, I can see that he was always right. Hemon is one of those rare writers who I trust completely. ●

Wayne Connolly studied literature forty years ago, and then spent a career working in university libraries in Manchester, York and Newcastle. He has spent his life surrounded by books, literally millions of books, but now in retirement he reads with greater urgency. There's so much stuff to enjoy and so little time! /// t: @KeeperOfPybus