"The Book of My Lives" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Aleksandar Hemon
Srebenica. Sniper Alley. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. If memories of the Bosnian war are starting to fade, you'd do well to pick up a copy of Aleksandar Hemon's "The Book of My Lives."
The Bosnian-born writer, who came to America through a cultural exchange program and sought political asylum when the siege of Sarajevo blocked his return, is an elegant and funny writer who, amazingly, didn't write in English until he moved here in his late 20s, in 1992.
The title of the book comes from a chilling essay about a charismatic, Shakespeare-spouting literature professor with whom Hemon studied at the University of Sarajevo, who later became a confidant of Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader accused of war crimes.
Professor Nikola Koljevic tells his class how his 5-year-old daughter began a book titled "The Book of My Life," but "planned to wait for more life to accumulate" before starting chapter two. Hemon is charmed by the story but years later berates himself for falling under Koljevic's spell. "I kept trying to identify the first moment when I could have noticed his genocidal proclivities," he writes.
All of the essays in the book, Hemon's first work of nonfiction, were originally published elsewhere, accounting for its somewhat disjointed feel. But cumulatively, the pieces add up to a singular life — acutely observed, deeply felt and scarred by the savagery of the Bosnian war, the sorrowful journey from multi-ethnic Sarajevo to multi-ethnic Chicago and the death of a child.
If there is one weakness, it's Hemon's fondness for abstractions, as in, "The funny thing is that the need for collective self-legitimization fits snugly into the neoliberal fantasy of multiculturalism." The words "exteriority" and "interiority" show up more than once.
But far more passages sparkle with finely observed details of daily life in the waning years of the federal republic of Yugoslavia, turning darker as Hemon anticipates the tribal hatreds that would eventually tear apart his beloved country.
When, in the opening pages, an innocent joke at a children's birthday party about a fluffy wool sweater from Turkey is misconstrued as a racist insult, bringing the festivities to a crashing halt, you know with dread in your heart what will be coming next.