In March of 1992 Aleksandar Hemon came to Chicago on what was supposed to be a month-long cultural exchange. During that month his native Sarajevo came under siege, and the war that he and his city had been wishing away came thundering home. Hemon, then 27, decided not to return. He stayed in Chicago, worked odd jobs and began writing stories in English, a language of which he had only an imperfect grasp. Eight years later he published his first collection of short stories, and eight years after that he published a novel, The Lazarus Project, that had the critics swooning and made him a finalist for the National Book Award. Along the way, Hemon published a number of autobiographical essays, many of them in The New Yorker, and it’s those pieces that are collected in The Book of My Lives.
As with his fiction, the essays here—though originally written as freestanding pieces—work together as a set of interlocking stories. In his careful, occasionally idiosyncratic prose, Hemon works his familiar theme of displacement, as experienced by those whom the forces of history (or, in the tragic final story, of biology) have yanked out of their old lives. The stories are set mostly in Sarajevo and Chicago, and they focus mostly on individual components of his lives in one or both of those cities: rambling walks, soccer matches, chess games, pet dogs, borscht. They give a vivid sense both of the texture of the two cities and of the pain, and eventual joy, Hemon felt in abandoning one for the other.
By turns sardonic and forlorn, Hemon’s tales illustrate the absurdity of war (the story of a beloved professor who became a genocidal nationalist is especially chilling), the enigma of arrival and the tragedy of finding your most cherished plans crushed by an onslaught of inhuman forces.