MY PARENTS: An Introduction / THIS DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU, by Aleksandar Hemon. MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $28.
Many years before he was born, Aleksander Hemon’s maternal great-grandfather in Bosnia encountered a pair of giants while traveling home on a horse-drawn sleigh. He was strong and rich — and maybe a little drunk — so he stood up in the sleigh and bade the horses go ahead and just slipped past them. Like many of the stories Hemon tells in “My Parents,” it reads like a fairy tale, or a tall tale, or a fable. The moral: Keep moving.
Much of the personal history Hemon recounts involves motion, whether it’s the movement of armies and nations over the land his ancestors called home or his own parents’ migration from Bosnia to Canada in 1993, during the war. How do you build a self when the world is moving about you in terrifying ways? How do you stay yourself when you are forced to start life over in exile? And how do your parents’ journeys mark them, and you?
These questions are at the heart of Hemon’s gorgeous new dual memoir (if you flip over “My Parents,” you’re facing “This Does Not Belong to You,” about which more below). The writing contains both immediacy and a thrillingly historical long view. “My father wouldn’t be who he is without the great Otto von Bismarck,” Hemon writes, explaining how a family of Ukrainians ended up in what became modern Bosnia. Great historical shifts and conquests act upon ordinary families, the book’s stories make clear. “This is how history works: arbitrarily and irreversibly,” Hemon writes. But it’s in telling the stories that meaning is wrought.
The stories Hemon tells about his parents and their histories are by turns harrowing and hilarious. They started life in what was then Yugoslavia, a place beset by what Hemon describes as “the complications inherent in a space populated by peoples who were at the same time too similar and too different.” His mother was a patriot, a servant to her young country, eager to help rebuild what the Second World War had sundered. Sent off to boarding school at 11, she worked relentlessly until retirement, planning on a well-deserved rest, when the war “crashed into her life like a meteorite, and with much the same disorienting effect.”
Now, as immigrants in Canada, both parents struggle with that displacement, but they endure. Their son renders both indelibly, fascinating as any fictional characters. “Mama has always been prone to stating the obvious, but with added ethical weight,” Hemon writes of his mother, while his father, he says, “is a kind of person who lives to solve problems, an essential and necessary skill for someone who constantly creates them for himself and others.” There is all the love and frustration here that anyone feels for their aging parents, with the additional heft of sympathy for their pain. “[O]ur family has left behind a trail of homelands, no longer available except by way of memory, music, and storytelling. Our history is the history of unassuageable longing for the home that could never be had.”
While “My Parents” unrolls in great skeins of storytelling, its companion book, “This Does Not Belong to You,” is a series of short, spikier pieces, untitled, none longer than a single paragraph. These focus on Hemon’s own personal history, a boyhood in Sarajevo before the war, coming of age as the old order is shifting, on its way to collapse. One of his earliest memories, he writes, is of tripping and falling into a pile of manure, lifted up by his uncle Bogdan and bathed in cold water.
As origin stories go, it’s darkly comic, and that’s one of the veins Hemon mines here. It’s a boyhood that unfolds with plenty of mishaps, daring escapes, beatings and boasting. Love and danger coexist. Hemon and his sister, co-conspirators against inexorable parental forces and the oppression of boredom, find a pile of old dishes at the dump and break them against rocks, discovering “the pleasure of unbridled, unlimited destruction, the endless joy of converting everything into nothing.” This is some of the best writing about what it really feels like to be a child that I can recall reading.
Hemon chronicles memories of play, of sex, of food, of reading and writing. Of punk rock, which provided a kind of salvation. Of exile, naturally. “A lifelong project, it’s been for me, going home,” he writes. These twin books form an unsettlingly beautiful report on that endless project.