My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You

My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You is Aleksandar Hemon’s second—or, more accurately, second and third—foray into memoir. It consists of two parts bound together head to tail, the back cover of one being the upside-down front cover of the other. The result is that it is impossible to read it in public without looking ridiculous—which is entirely appropriate. The book’s topsy-turvy arrangement exemplifies this particular author’s view of the world, one which tends toward the absurd and off kilter, the effect, no doubt, of the author’s predicament as an exile, as well as his origins in Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia, a country transformed by hatred and violence, converting neighbors into murderous enemies.

Hemon has already told part of his story in The Book of My Lives, including how he was visiting the U.S., when war broke out at home in 1992, making return inadvisable and himself a refugee; and how his parents fled Bosnia for Canada a year later. Still, as he explains in the present book, even before this disaster, a sense of exile and loss dwelt in the family’s consciousness. For his father, the Hemon family story was one of “the wars, the injuries, the displacements, the losses, the struggles, the moments of danger and despair.” His father is the grandson of Ukrainians who emigrated to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1900s when the province was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That dislocation and the more recent, more calamitous one, produced “an irreducible and incredibly rich identity rooted in concentric homelands, no longer available except by way of memory, music, and storytelling. Our history,” he writes, “is the history of unassuageable longing for the home that could never be had.”

Now Hemon gives us a bigger picture of his parents’ lives, but even more so of their view of the world, a view distorted by catastrophe. His father was an electrical engineer and the family owned not only their own house, but also a little place in the mountains. They were, in other words, reasonably well off by Yugoslavian standards—standards, however, which were modest, with modest expectations, especially compared to America’s insatiable cravings. Hemon’s parents, their son says, “were perpetually invested in constructing their lives, in consciously defining and refining the space in which their lives unfolded.” For them, “construction was more important than consumption.” Hemon’s father was devoted to repairing and building, making shelves, restoring furniture, establishing a garden, and, his joy of joy, keeping bees. The loss of the bees—and the news that, sometime after the family fled, vandals had trashed the hives and left the bees to die in the snow—was a terrific blow to the older man, another catastrophe. “The world of bees for him,” writes his son, “was the one realm where everything was always good, the way it had always been and was always supposed to be, where it all made sense.”

The space the Hemons occupied reflected their character, personality, and identity—and all that was lost when they had to leave. Once in Canada, however, they gradually shaped their surroundings into their own likeness—including, eventually, the creation of another apiary. Hemon provides eloquent photos of his parents and family from over the years, but the most striking one, in my view, has no people at all in it and yet it is personality incarnate. It is of Hemon’s father’s workshop in Canada, a truly exhilarating exhibition of one man’s busyness in its outlandish clutter of useful salvage and ingenious stowage.

My Parents: An Introduction is filled with astute ruminations on the older Hemons’ way of life in Bosnia and in exile, including the central place of food, literature, and music. (“My family’s love of music is rooted in the culture of poverty common among Slavs: singing together was the easiest, cheapest and most comforting entertainment while working the land for survival or while being killed in a war.”) The book is replete with Hemon’s mordant humor and one feels the pleasure he takes in the incongruous and out-of-place, such phenomena, for instance, as the wild popularity in Yugoslavia during the 1950s of the movie, Un día de vida. This film “single-handedly started a Yugoslav Mexican-music scene, whose stars were sombrero-wearing Montenegrins singing in poignant Serbo-Croatian about leaving behind their villages, Juanitas, and mothers for a big city.”

This Does Not Belong to You, the other half of the volume, is a collection of Hemon’s observations, recollections, and fragments of memory. The title comes from an event that he cannot forget, a beating received as a boy by a neighbor, a beating instigated by the young Hemon’s madly kicking the hall door of the apartment building. Recalling it, Hemon writes: “This does not belong to you, he kept saying. This does not belong to you. This is one of my longest-lasting memories: this does not belong to you.” I don’t think it is going too far to say that, while that event would no doubt have stuck in the author’s mind whatever his subsequent fate, the fact that he is an exile makes it more grievous: the country of his forbears, birth, and upbringing no longer belongs to him. The book also includes happier memories as well as some comic ones, if only in retrospect, as the time he, as an adolescent “absolutely devoid of sexual experience,” decided he had syphilis.

There are parts of this section of the book that are somewhat wearisome, specifically certain attempts at paradox and profundity. (“Only that which is difficult or impossible to remember is worth remembering. Only that which is hard or impossible to say is worth saying.”) Elsewhere, his musings on memory are far more convincing. He shows the way memory is not a way of reliving the past, but almost its opposite. Its images produce a feeling of gone-ness that can turn to sickness. Excavating fragments of the past which inhabit his mind, he writes:

A barrel of pickled cabbage on the balcony corner. The flat zinc boxes squeezed between the ribs of the radiator, filled with water to humidify the air in the winter. My mother speaking in a high-pitched voice of friendship into the mouth of a Bakelite phone. These belong to me. The terrible infection of memories, they don’t go away, they float around the bloodstream like loose bacteria until the recognize the presence of others somewhere in the system and then, and then, they will all turn virulent at the same time and here is sickness.

That is what belongs to Aleksandar Hemon, perhaps more excruciatingly in his condition of exile than for many others. Yet scraps of memory do belong to everyone, and sickeningly so as a person grows older and finds it harder and harder to bear the mystery of how the vanished realms of the past and its people can endure so inaccessibly and tormentingly in the mind. That, in essence, is what this strange book is about.