THE BOOK OF MY LIVES, by Aleksandar Hemon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 214 pp., $25.
The Bosnian-born writer ("The Question of Bruno," "The Lazarus Project"), 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 new book comes from a chilling essay about a charismatic, Shakespeare-spouting literature professor with whom Hemon studied at the University of Sarajevo. Professor Nikola Koljevic later became a confidant of Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader accused of war crimes.
The professor 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. "I kept trying to identify the first moment when I could have noticed his genocidal proclivities," he writes.
All the essays were originally published elsewhere. But cumulatively, they add up to a singular life -- acutely observed, deeply felt and scarred by the savagery of the Bosnian war, the sorrowful journey from multiethnic Sarajevo to multiethnic 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." But far more passages sparkle with finely observed details of daily life in the federal republic of Yugoslavia, turning darker as Hemon anticipates the tribal hatreds that would eventually tear apart his beloved country.