Reasons for remembering things: the refugee’s last resort

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

11 January 2020

9:00 AM

A family memoir is a dangerous thing to write: one has to balance between keeping one’s subjects happy and the reader engaged. The Bosnian–American author Aleksandar Hemon, now in his mid-fifties,  takes the risk the better to recollect his past. While no two generations can completely avoid the proverbial gap, he ‘never (until fairly recently) felt guilty about that discontinuity’. The first half of his new book, My Parents, comes across as an attempt to address this guilt.

The family chronology is traced from the early 20th century to the second world war, when Hemon’s parents were growing up, to their upward trajectories in postwar Yugoslavia, to 1993, when another war forced them to move to Canada and build a new life there, and all the way to their ageing together today. Focusing on a range of themes — ‘Homeland’, ‘Music’, ‘Marriage’ — the narrative cuts between the family and the society around it, with its freedoms and lack thereof.

Affected by displacement, the Hemons will always feel an ‘unassuageable longing for the home that could never be had’. Perhaps that’s why, for them, ‘construction [is] more important than consumption’. Their move from one world to another highlights not so much the differences as the similarities between the two. Projected on to today’s America, where Hemon has lived for nearly three decades, communist-era rituals begin to look like the Super Bowl; more generally, in its perception of its culture, the Yugoslavian middle class resembles that of ‘a “free” country like the United States’.

Distinctions are drawn too, the most thought-provoking one being between stories and language. With his ‘staunch belief that anything that can be said and thought in one language can be thought and said in another’, Hemon painstakingly translates such Bosnian words as katastrofa: not quite the same as ‘catastrophe’, it can be applied to misfortunes great and small, for one can never be sure when the real disaster is going to strike. However, the translatability of human experience is questionable when he quotes a Bosnian proverb that doesn’t work in English or lists words whose ‘bizarre beauty’ monolingual readers will never be able to see, despite his glossing.

The author’s acts of teenage rebellion recur throughout the text, as do bees, singing, smoked meat and weather forecasts. Sometimes these repetitions are of a piece with the characters’ daily routine, but often they seem unjustified: for instance, when fairly straightforward reasons why ‘food is joy’ keep appearing as predictably as cabbage rolls on the family table. These passages fall short of Hemon’s earlier memoir, The Book of My Lives, written in the knowledge that ‘there is always a story… more heartbreaking and compelling than yours’. And then you turn the volume over to see why This Does not Belong to You is printed the other way round, running in the opposite direction towards the family photos in the centre, and the narrative starts taking shape.

The ‘arbitrary exactness’ of small things that survive in family lore through individual memory (‘Therein lies the difference between story and history’) finally emerges as Hemon revisits the past — now his own, despite the hint in the title — in vivid, occasionally feverish, captivating fragments. ‘There are no random memories’, and that’s what makes these details — a shit-filled ditch, a golden lunch box, a shattered glass pane flying into a boy’s face, a ‘cool pre-kiss head tilt’, a Fiat crossing a flooded road, water bursting through the floor — strike a chord. If the first part merely suggested that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’, here the message grows more urgent: only what has been described counts as lived experience. Not worrying about looking too Freudian, this variety of memoir invites you to contemplate your own reasons for remembering things. Gradually, the unnecessary bits fade away as you read: ‘A lifelong project, it’s been for me, going home.’

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