'Book of My Lives': Aleksander Hemon's remarkable tale

Reginald Gibbons, a Chicago poet and Northwestern University professor, was first to publish him, in the late 1990s in the journal TriQuarterly. He told me Hemon's first stories, written as he was still grasping English, needed the lightest of editing, and as Hemon continued writing, “it became clear that here was a guy out of nowhere, ambitious and operating in the tradition of unbelievable European writers who write in English the way Americans never do, who see everyday life as painful, but absurdly painful — even fantastical at times.”

Indeed, comparisons between Hemon and Vladimir Nabokov, another late-to-English Eastern European fabulist (and closet humorist), dot reviews of Hemon's work. Throw in grim European stylists like Isaac Babel and Franz Kafka, and his writing comes into clearer focus.

McCann, who is from Ireland, recalled meeting Hemon just after the 2000 publication of “The Question of Bruno,” Hemon's first book.

“We were both emigrants, we were both (soccer) fans, we both had bad hairdos, but most of all we cared about literature. It was always about language, the way words slip in under our skin. We were both writing because we felt it was the only thing we could do. He wrote as if his life depended on it, and I recognized that feeling.” Then he added: “He is the best writer of our generation. I don't think it's immigrant fiction. … It's fiction that belongs everywhere.”

Quick question: How long have you been writing in English? I've been a journalist since about the time Hemon arrived in Chicago; everything I've written has been in English. Here is the first sentence of the first book Hemon wrote: “We got up at dawn, ignored the yolky sun, loaded our navy-blue Austin with suitcases and then drove straight to the coast, stopping only on the verge of Sarajevo, so I could pee.”That sentence contains nearly every note in Hemon's writing ever since. Have you ever written anything as good?

Discuss.

When Hemon returned to the table with napkins, I asked what he meant about avoiding more catastrophe. Eventually he answered the question, but at first he told me a different story, about survival and chocolate.

“I think I believe in the power of despair. Hope is nice for television, but for me, it is a liberating moment when you move in one direction because all other directions are blocked. It is why I have always written despite everything. It is refugee metaphysics. For generations, my family, both sides, the concern was always survival. The pursuit of happiness was a few steps ahead always. But I grew up with middle-class standards, so I struggle with this. My parents were college-educated and would never have any wealth, and it was fine. But my father, he knew poverty once, and when he would travel abroad, he would bring back chocolate. He would expect us to stretch it. But we knew chocolate. We would devour it in like 10 minutes! And yet, when I moved here in the '90s and had nothing, I could hear him: ‘Don't get used to the chocolate.'”

As for catastrophe:

“Well, you know, Isabel died. Then my wife had surgery. So it's an annual thing. I am very tired of hospitals.”

Hemon and Boyd — his second wife, after a 2005 divorce — have a 5-year-old daughter, Ella, and a 16-month-old named Esther, who, in 2011, was diagnosed with a very rare medical condition called Prader-Willi syndrome. It makes its sufferers ravenous, compulsively hungry; its victims have been known to eat themselves to death.

“When you read the possible outcomes online, it looks like an absolute disaster,” Hemon said, “but Esther is doing well, and some things express themselves differently in different people.”

Then there was summer 2012.

“I was having horrible headaches,” Boyd told me, “and a couple of doctors said it was probably a result of the stress, but it was a cyst — a cyst growing on my brain.” Which led to a pair of brain surgeries. (Boyd said she feels OK but added, “No, I still don't feel the same, to be honest.”)

That presumed stress she alluded to, Esther's condition aside, was assumed because of what happened in 2010.

Boyd took Isabel, their 9-month-old, for a routine checkup. The doctor thought Isabel's head seemed abnormally large. Tests confirmed a tumor on her brain. She had a rare form of cancer with a low survival rate, and she died four months later. Hemon dedicated “The Book of My Lives” to Isabel, “forever breathing on my chest.”

Indeed, its concluding story, “The Aquarium,” which appeared in The New Yorker less than a year after Isabel's death, is an unsparing account of Isabel's last months and Ella's ability to cope by telling stories. It was written in the Chicago production offices of filmmakers Lana and Andy Wachowski (of “Matrix” and “Cloud Atlas” fame), close friends of Hemon's. He normally writes (longhand) in coffeehouses and at a writers studio on Broadway, but explained, “I needed a weeping room, a place to write and weep at the same time.”

Asked if she had hesitations about his writing that story, Boyd said, “Yes, but I knew that he needed to.”

Asked if he had his own hesitations, Hemon replied: “Well, I could not not write it. The only other possibility was waiting, but the pain would not be less, and if I can't write about the painful things, then I am a hack.”

His voice never cracked, and his eyes, visibly watery, never flowed. “Trauma by definition is a rupture, a segregating of life into before and after. There is continuity in that we still love Isabel, but there is also her absence. Therapeutically speaking, I want to work toward one life again. We have two other children and in more ways than one, Isabel is present in them. So you develop a kind of layered conscience: You are aware of your child who is here now, but you also miss, and are always thinking of, your child who is not.”

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