Aleksandar Hemon's lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy's life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man's life is about poking at the pretensions of the city's elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better journalism. And then, his life in Chicago: watching from afar as war breaks out in Sarajevo and the city comes under siege, no way to return home; his parents and sister fleeing Sarajevo with the family dog, leaving behind all else they had ever known; and Hemon himself starting a new life, his own family, in this new city.
And yet this is not really a memoir. The Book of My Lives, Hemon's first book of nonfiction, defies convention and expectation. It is a love song to two different cities; it is a heartbreaking paean to the bonds of family; it is a stirring exhortation to go out and play soccer―and not for the exercise. It is a book driven by passions but built on fierce intelligence, devastating experience, and sharp insight. And like the best narratives, it is a book that will leave you a different reader―a different person, with a new way of looking at the world―when you've finished. For fans of Hemon's fiction, The Book of My Lives is simply indispensable; for the uninitiated, it is the perfect introduction to one of the great writers of our time.
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2013
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Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, The Lazarus Project, and Love and Obstacles. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, the PEN/W. G. Sebald Award, and, most recently, a 2012 USA Fellowship. He lives in Chicago.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE LIVES OF OTHERS
1. WHO IS THAT?
On the evening of March 27, 1969, my father was in Leningrad, USSR, in pursuit of his advanced electrical engineering degree. My mother was at home, in Sarajevo, deep in labor, attended to by a council of her women friends. She had her hands on her round belly, huffing and crying, but the council didn’t seem too worried. I was orbiting around her, exactly four and a half years old, trying to hold her hand or sit in her lap, until I was sent to bed and ordered to sleep. I defied the order so as to monitor the developments through the (somewhat Freudian) keyhole. I was terrified, naturally, for even if I knew that there was a baby in her stomach, I still didn’t know how exactly it was all going to work, what was going to happen to her, to us, to me. When she was eventually taken to the hospital in obvious and audible pain, I was left behind with terror-provoking thoughts, which teta-Jozefina tried to counter with the guarantees that my mother would not die, that she would come back with a brother or sister for me. I did want my mother to come back; I did not want a brother or sister; I wanted everything to be the way it was, the way it already used to be. The world had harmoniously belonged to me; indeed, the world had pretty much been me.
But nothing has ever been—nor will it ever be—the way it used to be. A few days later, I was accompanied by a couple of adults (whose names and faces have sunk to the sandy bottom of an aging mind—all I know about them is that neither of them was my father, who was still in the USSR) to retrieve my mother from the hospital. One thing I remember: she was not half as happy to see me as I was to see her. On our way home, I shared the backseat with her and a bundle of stuff they claimed was alive—that was supposed to be my sister. The alleged sister’s face was seriously crumpled, containing only an ugly, indefinable grimace. Moreover, her face was dark, as though she were soot-coated. When I traced my finger across her cheek, a pale line appeared under the soot. “She is filthy,” I announced to the adults, but none of them acknowledged the problem. From thereon in, it would be hard for me to have my thoughts heard and my needs met. Also, chocolate would be hard to get.
Thus my sooty alleged sister’s arrival marked the beginning of a tormentful, lonely period in my early development. Droves of people (bringing chocolate I couldn’t touch) came to our home to lean over her and produce ridiculous sounds. Few of them cared about me, while the attention they paid to her was wholly, infuriatingly undeserved: she did nothing but sleep and cry and undergo frequent diaper changes. I, on the other hand, could already read small words, not to mention speak fluently, and I knew all kinds of interesting things: I could recognize flags of various countries; I could easily distinguish between wild and farm animals; cute pictures of me were all over our house. I had knowledge, I had ideas, I knew who I was. I was myself, a person, beloved by everyone.
For a while, as painful as her existence was to me, she was but a new thing, something you had to get around to get to Mother, like a new piece of furniture or a wilted plant in a large pot. But then I realized that she was going to stay and be a permanent obstacle, that Mother’s love for me might never reach pre-sister levels. Not only did my new sister impinge upon what used to be my world, but she also obliviously asserted herself—despite having no self at all—into its very center. In our house, in my life, in my mother’s life, every day, all the time, forever, she was there—the soot-skinned not-me, the other.
Therefore I tried to exterminate her as soon as an opportunity presented itself. One spring day, Mother stepped out of the kitchen to pick up the phone and left her alone with me. My father was still in Russia, and she was probably talking to him. Mother did stay out of my sight for a while, as I watched the little creature, her unreadable face, her absolute absence of thought or personality, her manifest insubstantiality, her unearned presence. So I started choking her, pressing my thumbs against her windpipe, as seen on television. She was soft and warm, alive, and I had her existence in my hands. I felt her tiny neck under my fingers, I was causing her pain, she was squirming for life. Suddenly, I recognized that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing, I shouldn’t be killing her, because she was my little sister, because I loved her. But the body is always ahead of the thought and I kept up the pressure for another moment, until she started vomiting curdled breast milk. I was terrified with the possibility of losing her: her name was Kristina; I was her big brother; I wanted her to live so I could love her more. But, although I knew how I could end her life, I didn’t know how I could stop her from dying.
My mother heard her desperate cries, dropped the phone, and ran to her aid. She picked my sister up, calmed her down, wiped off the curds, made her inhale and breathe, then demanded an explanation from me. My just-discovered love for my sister and the related feeling of guilt did not at all displace my self-protective instincts: I bold-facedly stated that she’d started crying and I’d merely put my hand over her mouth to prevent her from bothering Mother. Throughout my boyhood I always knew more and better than my parents thought I did—I was always a little older than what they could see. In this instance, I shamelessly claimed good intentions coupled with little-boy ignorance, and so I was warned and forgiven. There is no doubt I was monitored for a while, but I haven’t tried to kill Kristina since, loving her uninterruptedly.
The recollection of that sororicide attempt is the earliest memory in which I can observe myself from outside: what I see is me and my sister. Never again would I be alone in the world, never again would I have it exclusively for myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others. Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself.
2. WHO ARE WE?
When I was growing up in Sarajevo in the early seventies, the dominant social concept among the kids was raja. If one had any friends at all, one had a raja, but normally the raja was defined by the part of town or the building complex one lived in—we spent most of our nonschool time playing in the streets. Each raja had a generational hierarchy. The velika raja were the older kids, whose responsibilities included protecting the mala raja—the smaller kids—from abuse or pocket-emptying by some other raja. The older kids’ rights included unconditional obedience on the part of the mala raja, who could thus always be deployed to buy cigarettes, naked-lady magazines, beer, and condoms, or to volunteer their heads for the velika raja’s merciless filliping practice—my head was often submitted to a cannonade of the dreaded mazzolas. Many rajas were defined by and named after their leader, usually the strongest, toughest kid. We feared, for example, the raja of Ciza, who was a well-known jalijaš, a street thug. Normally, Ciza was old enough to be gainfully invested in various forms of petty crime, so we never saw him. He acquired a mythological quality, while his younger brother Zeko ran the daily operations of doing nothing in particular. It was he who we feared most.
My raja was a lesser, weak one, as we had no leader at all—all of our older boys, alas, took school seriously. We were defined by a playground between the two symmetrical, socialistically identical buildings in which we lived; we called it the Park. In the geopolitics of our neighborhood (known back then as Stara stanica—the Old Train Station) we were known as the Parkaši. The Park not only contained playground equipment—a slide, three swings, sandbox, merry-go-round—but there were benches as well, which served as goals whenever we played soccer. There were also, more important, the bushes where we had our loga—our base, the place where we could escape from Ciza’s marauding raja, where we hoarded things stolen from our parents or pilfered from other, feebler kids. The Park was therefore our rightful domain, our sovereign territory, on which no stranger, let alone a member of another raja, could trespass—any suspected foreigner was subject to preemptive frisking or punitive attack. Once we waged a successful campaign against a bunch of teenagers who mistakenly thought that our Park was a good place for smoking, drinking, and mutual fondling. We threw at them rocks and wet sand wrapped in paper, we charged collectively at the isolated ones, breaking long sticks against their legs as they helplessly swung their short arms. Occasionally, some other raja would try to invade and take control of the Park and we would fight a war—heads were cracked, bodies bruised, all and any of us risking a grievous injury. Only when Zeko and his troopers—our more powerful nemesis—came to the Park did we have to stand back and watch them swing on our swings, slide on our slide, piss in our sandbox, shit in our bushes. All we could do was imagine merciless revenge, deferred into an indefinite but certain future.
Now it seems to me that when I wasn’t in school or reading books, I was involved in some collective project of my raja. Besides protecting the sovereignty of the Park and waging various wars, we spent time at one another’s homes, swapped comic books and football stickers, sneaked together into the nearby movie theater (Kino Arena), searched for evidence of sexual activity in our parents’ closets, and attended one another’s birthday parties. My primary loyalty was to my raja and any other collective affiliation was e...
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