Steven Hayward's new biography gets the Blacklisted By History author just right
Languages of Memory
My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You
By Aleksandar Hemon
Life rarely moves linearly, despite the unambiguity of chronological time. Memories intrude on that seemingly perfect arrangement, be they good or bad. They tend to have much more meaning when they are accompanied and burdened with great loss. Like Gregor Samsa, memories metamorphose into giant cockroaches, and people who have endured darkness have no choice but to sit in the same room with that grand insect. Memories of loss can be beautiful, too, but only momentarily, because the bitterness quickly engulfs them. Yet we have the need to give them voice, a need we generally don’t understand.
The Bosnian American novelist Aleksandar Hemon has explored the mystery of memory in most of his works. His latest book, My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You, is actually two books in one—in My Parents: An Introduction, Hemon describes the family history of his parents, as well as their lives in Communist Yugoslavia before the Bosnian war of the 1990s broke out and their subsequent immigration to Canada. It is, in many ways, a loving ode to his roots, and mostly to his parents, whom he deeply cherishes.
His parents, Petar and Andja, become familiar to the reader as Hemon opens up their lives in a very respectful way. He shares their courtship, marriage, daily lives, comforts, hopes, and incredible struggles as immigrants in Canada. He doesn’t treat them as subjects he can mold in any shape he wants. Instead, he lets their story, however reliable or unreliable it is, reveal itself slowly. Memory is often shaky, and it is as if Hemon were presenting us with the fragility of remembrance. In this, his work echoes that of W. G. Sebald, whose many books (especially The Emigrants and Austerlitz) deal with the passage of time and how it relates to the embodiment of our concrete world.
The “second” book, This Does Not Belong to You, is composed of short pieces that dig deeply into the interiority of who Aleksandar Hemon is, or at least who he is as he’s revealing himself to the reader. It is both a counterpart to his parents’ upbringing described in My Parents and a companion to their story. He is both inseparable and wholly separated from his parents, and by association from Yugoslavia and, of course, Bosnia.
Hemon came to the United States in early 1992, from Sarajevo to Chicago, on a purely pleasure trip. Yugoslavia was disintegrating, but Bosnians were living in the hope that by declaring independence as a nation there would be no war, no conflict, and above all no genocide. Yet, on the contrary, independence brought all those things, and on April 6, 1992, the streets of Sarajevo were barricaded while Serbs situated themselves on the mountains surrounding the city and began what became the longest city siege in modern history—four years.
Hemon was stuck in America. It would be incredibly foolish to go back in the midst of war, and so he stayed in Chicago. This choiceless choice is what drives Hemon the writer, especially in This Does Not Belong to You. Who is he, indeed, as most of his life is colored by this? Neither here nor there, always missing somewhere, Hemon is left with the inevitable burden of being: “Before the word, there was nothing, except me, whom I can’t remember, except as a character, a unity that doesn’t hold together. I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention.”
The metaphysical states of Hemon the writer and Hemon the man are often greatly separated, and seldom do they fuse. He is attempting to find some kind of whole, however absurd. And he is trying to solve the paradox of memory: the human need for closure that will never truly arrive, as well as the difficulty of remembering, which gives rise to more existential and chronological contradictions. “There are . . . two versions,” writes Hemon, “memory and imagery. What can be shown cannot be said, which is to say that the versions are mutually exclusive.” More than anything, “the domain of memory is surrounded by a universe of oblivion, humming just outside of what I know. Every time I recall, I take off my shoes, dip my toes into that darkness, cold as the snow melting in the spring, until I can feel nothing.” A complete annihilation of being in an effort to (re)create.
One of the aspects of memory is its unreliability and the uneasiness it creates. This is particularly true when Hemon writes about his parents. Sometimes, we don’t want to talk about the past, even if the reasons are unclear. For instance, while Hemon was growing up, his mother didn’t wish to talk about her childhood, so as Hemon writes, “Narratively speaking, Mama did not have a childhood.” This distinction creates a dialogue between what was and what is, what is true and what is somewhat true. Hemon weaves in two points of view—his father’s and his mother’s—during which he becomes the narrator of their story. In a sense, it is his voice (a son’s gratitude) that gives life to his parents’ story.
In this book, Hemon unmasks himself—which is not the case with his novels, such as The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man, despite the fact that there are many autobiographical moments in them. But as in Hemon’s other works, here too the language is profoundly visceral and sensual. Whether he is writing about catching flies as a boy and carefully removing their wings, or about boyhood wounds, or first loves and kisses, Hemon uses the English language in a new and unusual way. He is firmly rooted in an existential state that is fully linguistic in nature, and the words become entrances and exits between two languages, Bosnian and English, and ultimately between two lives.
In fact, in both My Parents: An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You, Hemon uses many Bosnian words, which are often translated, but sometimes not. This shouldn’t bother the reader: the foreignness only adds to the distance between Hemon the writer and the stranger who reads this. Bosnians who are reading this will feel great familiarity, but even so, Hemon cautions us that those same Sarajevo streets that we walked, those same songs we sang, do not belong to us, the readers, whether American or Bosnian.
This may seem dismissive and alienating, but it needn’t be. In fact, if the reader looks at it from a different angle, he or she might find it liberating, because now the same events or places hold a rather different meaning. It is the meaning that we are searching for, not necessarily the accuracy of memory but the lasting image that might connect us to our previous life that we both love and detest. Love because it is central to our heart, and detest because it is forever tainted by the war, and because we are either condemned or destined to move between the worlds, between the languages, between identities that will always remain separate. But like lovers who are always apart yet yearn to be together, these interior worlds will remain in dialogue, because there always remains a glimpse of memory that speaks.
Emina Melonic is a writer and political commentator based in East Aurora, NY. Her work has been published in The Spectator, New English Review, the University Bookman, the New Criterion, National Review, American Greatness, and Splice Today, among others
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