The Book of my Lives
By Aleksandar Hemon
Picador Copyright © 2013 Aleksandar Hemon
All rights reserved.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS
1. WHO IS THAT?
On the evening of March 27, 1969, my father was in Leningrad, USSR, in pursuit of his advanced electrical engineering degree. My mother was at home, in Sarajevo, deep in labor, attended to by a council of her women friends. She had her hands on her round belly, huffing and crying, but the council didn't seem too worried. I was orbiting around her, exactly four and a half years old, trying to hold her hand or sit in her lap, until I was sent to bed and ordered to sleep. I defied the order so as to monitor the developments through the (somewhat Freudian) keyhole. I was terrified, naturally, for even if I knew that there was a baby in her stomach, I still didn't know how exactly it was all going to work, what was going to happen to her, to us, to me. When she was eventually taken to the hospital in obvious and audible pain, I was left behind with terror-provoking thoughts, which teta-Jozefina tried to counter with the guarantees that my mother would not die, that she would come back with a brother or sister for me. I did want my mother to come back; I did not want a brother or sister; I wanted everything to be the way it was, the way it already used to be. The world had harmoniously belonged to me; indeed, the world had pretty much been me.
But nothing has ever been—nor will it ever be—the way it used to be. A few days later, I was accompanied by a couple of adults (whose names and faces have sunk to the sandy bottom of an aging mind—all I know about them is that neither of them was my father, who was still in the USSR) to retrieve my mother from the hospital. One thing I remember: she was not half as happy to see me as I was to see her. On our way home, I shared the backseat with her and a bundle of stuff they claimed was alive—that was supposed to be my sister. The alleged sister's face was seriously crumpled, containing only an ugly, indefinable grimace. Moreover, her face was dark, as though she were soot-coated. When I traced my finger across her cheek, a pale line appeared under the soot. "She is filthy," I announced to the adults, but none of them acknowledged the problem. From thereon in, it would be hard for me to have my thoughts heard and my needs met. Also, chocolate would be hard to get.
Thus my sooty alleged sister's arrival marked the beginning of a tormentful, lonely period in my early development. Droves of people (bringing chocolate I couldn't touch) came to our home to lean over her and produce ridiculous sounds. Few of them cared about me, while the attention they paid to her was wholly, infuriatingly undeserved: she did nothing but sleep and cry and undergo frequent diaper changes. I, on the other hand, could already read small words, not to mention speak fluently, and I knew all kinds of interesting things: I could recognize flags of various countries; I could easily distinguish between wild and farm animals; cute pictures of me were all over our house. I had knowledge, I had ideas, I knew who I was. I was myself, a person, beloved by everyone.
For a while, as painful as her existence was to me, she was but a new thing, something you had to get around to get to Mother, like a new piece of furniture or a wilted plant in a large pot. But then I realized that she was going to stay and be a permanent obstacle, that Mother's love for me might never reach pre-sister levels. Not only did my new sister impinge upon what used to be my world, but she also obliviously asserted herself—despite having no self at all—into its very center. In our house, in my life, in my mother's life, every day, all the time, forever, she was there—the soot-skinned not-me, the other.
Therefore I tried to exterminate her as soon as an opportunity presented itself. One spring day, Mother stepped out of the kitchen to pick up the phone and left her alone with me. My father was still in Russia, and she was probably talking to him. Mother did stay out of my sight for a while, as I watched the little creature, her unreadable face, her absolute absence of thought or personality, her manifest insubstantiality, her unearned presence. So I started choking her, pressing my thumbs against her windpipe, as seen on television. She was soft and warm, alive, and I had her existence in my hands. I felt her tiny neck under my fingers, I was causing her pain, she was squirming for life. Suddenly, I recognized that I shouldn't be doing what I was doing, I shouldn't be killing her, because she was my little sister, because I loved her. But the body is always ahead of the thought and I kept up the pressure for another moment, until she started vomiting curdled breast milk. I was terrified with the possibility of losing her: her name was Kristina; I was her big brother; I wanted her to live so I could love her more. But, although I knew how I could end her life, I didn't know how I could stop her from dying.
My mother heard her desperate cries, dropped the phone, and ran to her aid. She picked my sister up, calmed her down, wiped off the curds, made her inhale and breathe, then demanded an explanation from me. My just-discovered love for my sister and the related feeling of guilt did not at all displace my self-protective instincts: I bold-facedly stated that she'd started crying and I'd merely put my hand over her mouth to prevent her from bothering Mother. Throughout my boyhood I always knew more and better than my parents thought I did—I was always a little older than what they could see. In this instance, I shamelessly claimed good intentions coupled with little-boy ignorance, and so I was warned and forgiven. There is no doubt I was monitored for a while, but I haven't tried to kill Kristina since, loving her uninterruptedly.
The recollection of that sororicide attempt is the earliest memory in which I can observe myself from outside: what I see is me and my sister. Never again would I be alone in the world, never again would I have it exclusively for myself. Never again would my selfhood be a sovereign territory devoid of the presence of others. Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself.
2. WHO ARE WE?
When I was growing up in Sarajevo in the early seventies, the dominant social concept among the kids was raja. If one had any friends at all, one had a raja, but normally the raja was defined by the part of town or the building complex one lived in—we spent most of our nonschool time playing in the streets. Each raja had a generational hierarchy. The velika raja were the older kids, whose responsibilities included protecting the mala raja—the smaller kids—from abuse or pocket-emptying by some other raja. The older kids' rights included unconditional obedience on the part of the mala raja, who could thus always be deployed to buy cigarettes, naked-lady magazines, beer, and condoms, or to volunteer their heads for the velika raja 's merciless filliping practice—my head was often submitted to a cannonade of the dreaded mazzola s. Many raja s were defined by and named after their leader, usually the strongest, toughest kid. We feared, for example, the raja of Ciza, who was a well-known jalija, a street thug. Normally, Ciza was old enough to be gainfully invested in various forms of petty crime, so we never saw him. He acquired a mythological quality, while his younger brother Zeko ran the daily operations of doing nothing in particular. It was he who we feared most.
My raja was a lesser, weak one, as we had no leader at all—all of our older boys, alas, took school seriously. We were defined by a playground between the two symmetrical, socialistically identical buildings in which we lived; we called it the Park. In the geopolitics of our neighborhood (known back then as Stara stanica—the Old Train Station) we were known as the Parkai. The Park not only contained playground equipment—a slide, three swings, sandbox, merry-go-round—but there were benches as well, which served as goals whenever we played soccer. There were also, more important, the bushes where we had our loga—our base, the place where we could escape from Ciza's marauding raja, where we hoarded things stolen from our parents or pilfered from other, feebler kids. The Park was therefore our rightful domain, our sovereign territory, on which no stranger, let alone a member of another raja, could trespass—any suspected foreigner was subject to preemptive frisking or punitive attack. Once we waged a successful campaign against a bunch of teenagers who mistakenly thought that our Park was a good place for smoking, drinking, and mutual fondling. We threw at them rocks and wet sand wrapped in paper, we charged collectively at the isolated ones, breaking long sticks against their legs as they helplessly swung their short arms. Occasionally, some other raja would try to invade and take control of the Park and we would fight a war—heads were cracked, bodies bruised, all and any of us risking a grievous injury. Only when Zeko and his troopers—our more powerful nemesis—came to the Park did we have to stand back and watch them swing on our swings, slide on our slide, piss in our sandbox, shit in our bushes. All we could do was imagine merciless revenge, deferred into an indefinite but certain future.
Now it seems to me that when I wasn't in school or reading books, I was involved in some collective project of my raja. Besides protecting the sovereignty of the Park and waging various wars, we spent time at one another's homes, swapped comic books and football stickers, sneaked together into the nearby movie theater (Kino Arena), searched for evidence of sexual activity in our parents' closets, and attended one another's birthday parties. My primary loyalty was to my raja and any other collective affiliation was entirely abstract and absurd. Yes, we were all Yugoslavs and Pioneers and we all loved socialism, our country, and its greatest son, our marshal Tito, but never would I have gone to war and taken blows for those. Our other identities—say, the ethnicity of any of us—were wholly irrelevant. To the extent we were aware of ethnic identity in one another, it was related to the old-fashioned customs practiced by our grown-ups, fundamentally unrelated to our daily operations, let alone our struggle against the oppression we suffered from Zeko and his cohorts.
One day I went, with nearly all of my raja, to Almir's birthday party. Almir was somewhat older than me, therefore an authority on many things I knew nothing about, including the explosive properties of asbestos, which we called "glass wool" and to which we somehow had unlimited access. On one occasion I had repeatedly ducked as he threw, like a hand grenade, a handful of "glass wool" wrapped in paper, promising an explosion that never came. Almir was also old enough to be getting into rock music, so at his party he played Bijelo Dugme, the Sarajevan rock band that was at the time scaring the living daylights out of our parents, what with their hairy looks and antisocial, antisocialist, asinine music. Other than that, Almir's was birthday business as usual: we ate the sandwiches, drank the juices, watched him blow out the candles on the cake, offered him our gifts.
For his birthday party, Almir was neatly dressed, which on that occasion meant a wool sweater with black and orange stripes, somewhat fluffy and comparatively resplendent—our socialist-Yugoslavia clothes were decidedly drab. The sweater visibly belonged to someplace else, so I asked him where it came from. It came from Turkey, he said. Whereupon I quipped: "So you are a Turk!" It was supposed to be a funny joke, but nobody laughed; what's worse, nobody thought it was a joke. My point was that a foreign sweater made him a kind of foreigner, a teasing possible only because it was manifestly and unquestionably untrue. The failed joke entirely changed the mood of the party: to my utter surprise Almir started inconsolably crying, while everyone looked at me admonishingly. I begged them to explain what it was that I'd said, and when they didn't, or couldn't, I tried to outline how the joke was supposed to have worked, digging thereby a deeper hole for myself. Let me not go through all the steps of the descent into a disaster—before long the party was over; everyone went home, and everyone knew that I had ruined it. That is, at least, how I guiltily remember it.
Subsequently, my parents explained to me that Turk was (and still is) a derogatory, racist word for a Bosnian Muslim. (Years later, I would recall my inadvertent insult, yet again, while watching the footage of Ratko Mladic speaking to a Serb camera upon entering Srebrenica, where he was to oversee the murder of eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men—"This is the latest victory in a five-hundred-year-long war against the Turks," he said.) After Almir's birthday party, I learned that a word such as Turk could hurt people. Moreover, it seemed that everyone knew about it before me. What I said othered Almir, it made him feel excluded from the group I was presumably unimpeachably part of, whatever group it was. Yet my joke was supposed to be about the flimsiness of difference—as we belonged to the same raja, having fought many a war together, the sweater established a momentary, evanescent difference. Almir was teasable exactly because there was no lasting, essential difference between us. But the moment you point at a difference, you enter, regardless of your age, an already existing system of differences, a network of identities, all of them ultimately arbitrary and unrelated to your intentions, none of them a matter of your choice. The moment you other someone, you other yourself. When I idiotically pointed at Almir's nonexistent difference, I expelled myself from my raja.
Part of growing up is learning, unfortunately, to develop loyalties to abstractions: the state, the nation, the idea. You pledge allegiance; you love the leader. You have to be taught to recognize and care about differences, you have to be instructed who you really are; you have to learn how generations of dead people and their incomprehensible accomplishments made you the way you are; you have to define your loyalty to an abstraction-based herd that transcends your individuality. Hence the raja is hard to sustain as a social unit, your loyalty to it—to the "we" so concrete that I could (still) provide a list of names that constituted it—no longer acceptable as a serious commitment.
I cannot honestly claim that my insult was directly related to the fact that our wars and the golden days of our Park sovereignty ended soon thereafter. At some point all the conflicts with other raja s were resolved by playing soccer, which we were not all that good at. We still couldn't beat Zeko and his team, because they had the power to determine when a foul was committed or a goal scored. We did not dare touch them and even when we scored, the goal was always denied.
As for Almir, he didn't play soccer well enough and he got even more into Bijelo Dugme, a band I would forever hate. Soon he reached a point in his life when girls were accessible to him. He started leading a life different from our boyish lives, becoming someone other than ourselves well before we could. Now I don't know where he is or what happened to him. We no longer belong to "us."
3. US VERSUS THEM
In December 1993, my sister and parents arrived as refugees in Hamilton, Ontario. In the first couple of months, my parents attended English-language courses, while Kristina worked at Taco Bell, a purveyor of fast "ethnic" food, which she preferred to refer to as Taco Hell. Things were very complicated for them, what with the language my parents couldn't speak, the generic shock of displacement, and a cold climate that was extremely unfriendly to randomly warm human interactions. For my parents, finding a job was a frightening operation of major proportions, but Hamilton is a steel-mill town teeming with job-hungry immigrants, where many of the natives are first-generation Canadians and therefore friendly, and supportive of their new compatriots. Soon enough my parents did find work—Father at a steel mill, Mother as a superintendent in a large apartment building, in which many of the tenants were foreign-born. (Continues...)
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