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Alexsandar Hemon reinvents the memoir, and makes good borscht

Aleksandar Hemon

Velibor Bozovic

The Book of My Lives
Aleksandar Hemon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Much memoir in book form follows a well-defined pattern: I am a person of unusual feeling and resilience, though flawed and human like you. A series of terrible things happened to me, and I suffered – oh, how I suffered – but, in the end, I found something quiet and wonderful, which you, too, can use in your life. I will admit to reading and enjoying this sort of memoir from time to time.

For his first foray into non-fiction, Aleksandar Hemon, the celebrated, award-winning author of The Lazarus Project and Love and Obstacles, could easily have written such a book – the material certainly exists.

Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, often felt like an outsider, made mistakes growing up, and was painfully affected by the coming of war and then the war itself. He spent the war in Chicago, struggled with the reality that his home was no longer his home, found a new home, found ways to fit in to the American landscape, played soccer with wondrous misfits, played chess with wonderful misfits, fell in love, got married, got divorced, fell in love and got married again, had kids, and lived through the nightmare of having a child stricken with cancer. There's an Oprah book in there somewhere – a more eccentric Eat, Pray, Love, or a Bosnian The Glass Castle. And it's easy to see how Hemon could have written it.

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Fortunately for us, The Book of Lives follows no such pattern. It is best described as a memoir in essays, all of which have been previously published, and it would be easy to view this as an attempt to monetize existing work, as writers try to do from time to time. That would be a mistake, however, and a failure to recognize the precision and understated beauty of the book. The sense of adventure and quiet humour that makes Hemon's fiction stand out among his contemporaries is on display here, along with prose that is crisp and clear while still retaining his distinctive voice.

The book consists of short, episodic essays, none longer than 10 or 15 pages, and while, as the book goes on, you feel them connecting in loose ways, they are all small bits of a life, spoonfuls from a larger bowl. Take, for instance, his essay on borscht:

"Borscht must be cooked in a large pot, it must feed a large number of people, and it ought to last beyond one meal. It is an essential leftover dish, always better the next day. … There is no wine that matches it. A perfect borscht is a utopian dish: ideally, it contains everything; it is produced and consumed collectively; and it can be refrigerated and reheated in perpetuity. A perfect borscht is what a life should be but never is."

I cannot stand borscht. I also do not much care for soccer or chess or the city of Chicago. None of that matters when reading this book, because Hemon is able to put the reader right beside him and want to like these things, and for the time it took me to read his stories, I did. This is a trick of a fiction writer, and Hemon applies it in non-fiction with the skill of a master.

As the main character in his own work, Hemon is not asking the reader to judge him. Nor is he asking the reader to refrain from judging him. He doesn't seem to care either way. At the same time, he relays his experiences with an intensity that is both vehement and detached, one that strikes me as quintessentially Bosnian (though one should probably never make such generalizations). It is almost unthinkable to North Americans that one can care deeply about something without demanding that others do too. Hemon doesn't; he's not proselytizing, he's simply relaying, but he's relaying with sharp concentration.

In one of the later essays, The Lives of Grandmasters, he chronicles his lifelong interest in the game of chess, relating it to his relationship with his father. Hemon tells us almost nothing about his father. He is important to Hemon, obviously, and as a reader you feel that importance acutely. In the hands of another writer, this lack of specificity would be a detriment. Here, however, it is what makes the the piece work so well.

At the end of the essay, Hemon finally beats his father at chess and derives no joy from it, but rather seems to destroy something he wasn't fully aware of. "We shook hands in silence, like true grandmasters, and we never again played against each other."

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In that moment, I found myself picturing my own father and me shaking hands after playing chess. That has never actually happened, but Hemon's talent made me feel it had. In many memoirs, I would be expected to glean some easily digestible truth from the writer's trials and tribulations. Hemon isn't interested in such simple exchanges. Instead, his strange and wonderful book altered the fabric of my life – a much harder effect to achieve, and a much more enduring one.

The final essay, The Aquarium, is where Hemon's skill is most startling. The piece begins with his nine-month-old daughter being diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, and recounts her and her family's attempts to cope. "One of the most common platitudes we heard," he writes, "was that 'words failed.' But words were not failing Teri and me at all. It was not true that there was no way to describe our experience."

Hemon is right. What happens next is so raw and nakedly demanding of sympathy that it is hard to imagine how a writer could meaningfully share this piece of his life with a reader. But this one does. Before reading the rest of this final essay, I had been moved to tears by another writer three times in my life. I can now count four.

Steven Galloway is the author of The Cellist of Sarajevo.His fourth novel, The Confabulist, will be published in 2014 by Knopf Canada.

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