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Books Aleksandar Hemon’s memoirs reflect on family (in Hamilton), memory and nostalgia in Yugoslavia

My Parents / This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon.

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My Parents/ This Does Not Belong To You, by Aleksandar Hemon (Hamish Hamilton, 2019) 364 pages.

Aleksandar Hemon is one of those annoyingly brilliant Joseph Conrad-type writers who learned English as an adult – he was a tourist in the United States when civil war broke out in his native Yugoslavia, and he was stranded there – and became more fluent and funny in that language than most of us who grew up with it.

Now 54 and literarily protean, he has published novels, stories, essays and memoirs, won a MacArthur “genius grant” and teaches at Princeton. His 2008 novel The Lazarus Project was nominated for various U.S. awards and he writes essays frequently for The New Yorker – perhaps the best known of which was a devastatingly sad piece, The Aquarium (2011), about the loss of his one-year-old daughter to a brain tumour.

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Hemon has a Canadian connection. His parents, fleeing Sarajevo just before the beginning of the siege in 1992, migrated to Hamilton, where they still live.

Much of his work has had a backwards-looking tint to it (his 2002 novel Nowhere Man has a protagonist of mixed Ukrainian and Bosnian descent, much like him), and as he grows older he seems to be becoming increasingly preoccupied with memory, nostalgia and their uses.

His new book is two books, back to back and upside down. My Parents, a straightforward family history and character study of his parents, is divided into chapters titled “Food,” “Music,” “Literature,” “Pets” and so on. You finish one half and then turn the book over and start the second book from the other end. This Does Not Belong To You is a more experimental work, a series of short vignettes (not unlike “flash fictions,”), each a specific memory of the author’s childhood in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The question, “When exactly did I become a myself, the first person of the many I would be?” guides these memories.

The vignettes in This Does Not Belong To You are alternately slight, amusing and gruesome: They describe a basically happy childhood in a grey, but comforting communist town. In one, the narrator plays a game with marbles whose moves and elements he remembers in a language that only made sense in a particular neighbourhood in Sarajevo; in another, he gets revenge on a bully and then feels guilty about it; in another, he remembers how many flies were at his grandparents’ farm. The impossibility of finding a clear significance to these fragments is explicitly addressed. Of listening to music, Hemon writes, “One not only wants to understand, but also quite as certainly not to understand.” This may be an analogy of the entire project.

More interesting than the events themselves are Hemon’s constant reflections on the value and role of nostalgia. “A homeland cannot be constituted without nostalgia, without retroactively establishing a past utopia,” he claims. “Nationalist nostalgia is thus the source of insidious fantasies without which any Make X-land Great Again ideology is impossible, providing excuses for genocidal operations needed to restore the imaginary purity.” To this pernicious nostalgia he contrasts a “private, personal” nostalgia, which is dependent on the senses. “The personal homeland is the place where everything was more intensely experienced once upon a time and now seems unquestionably authentic, which is why its primary location is usually childhood or youth.” The quest of this book is to locate “the authenticating hyperreality of nostalgic past.”

None of us can ever return to our pasts, of course, but Hemon’s loss is doubled by the fact of physical exile. Familial exile is more deeply explored in the more conventional narrative here, My Parents, which describes his mother and father’s adaptation to the new land of Canada after losing everything to the war. Hemon’s father, referred to throughout as Tata, was a successful manager at an electrical company with a fair-sized apartment, a car, a cottage in the mountains and a beekeeping hobby. When the family moves to Canada they lose income, security and status: they don’t speak the language and have no place in the world. Tata gets a job as a building supervisor at a high-rise – a demeaning position for someone so established – and must try to create entirely new routines and community. (He does manage to re-establish an apiary, which seems to save him emotionally.)

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Hemon’s meticulous detailing of his parents’ habits – everything they eat, each song they like to sing – is a reflection of the deepest love. And at times, it can seem a little too personal. The book has its doldrums – the chapter that lists all the family pets, for example, is not unlike a list any family could make. It could have been skipped.

But it is also a cultural history: the intricate ethnic mix of his family – Ukrainian, Bosnian Serb in a place attacked by Serbs – is a microcosm of Yugoslav society. The various empires – Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Soviet – that pushed them together allowed, right through the Soviet era, for them to all live in peace together and even intermarry. When this delicate balance of tribes fell apart, it fell apart badly, and this rendering of how such a delicate palimpsest comes together furnishes at least a partial explanation of why it did.

A persistent theme in these reminiscences is the advantages that life in a communist state afforded. Hemon does not remember deprivation or censorship; he does not complain about bureaucratic ineptitude or secret police or unavailable toilet paper, as we have come to expect Eastern Bloc survivors to do: He remembers comfort, family and security, mountaineering clubs and linguistics clubs. Yugoslavia was a relatively prosperous communist state. Everybody had a job, and there was a sense of inexorable material progress and an optimism about the socialist project. Not to mention a sense of belonging and social cohesion. North America is painted as a land of chronic insecurity and mass inequality by comparison.

What is the value of a very personal memoirs like this, for all of us? Is the pleasure in reading these pages – and pleasure there is – from putting together a picture of a troubled period in history from a portrait of domestic life? Or is it in identifying with loss itself, with the processes that we all go through when we find – especially in middle age – that memories of childhood seem increasingly fantastical? I suspect it is the latter: the pleasure here is in experiencing a sophisticated language that teases out these impulses. This is the record of a man thinking, a man not just in search of lost time but in search of what exactly the role of memory is in our psyches as we have composed them.

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