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A novelist’s memoir of his split life could use a little more life

Aleksandar Hemon might have titled his new essay collection Life Before and After Wartime, but he settled for The Book of My Lives.

The plural speaks to his having grown up in Bosnia and matured in the U.S., but it inevitably references an experiential limbo between those lives. Hemon left Sarajevo just as war broke out in 1992 and returned, for a visit, only after it had finished.

I almost hate to say it, but: How much more interesting that life might have been.

Not that this mélange of reminiscences — 15 essays, originally published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Granta and elsewhere — lacks engagement. Hemon has neatly adapted them into a more-or-less chronological account, starting with his attempt as a 5-year-old to kill his attention-sucking baby sister and rounding it out with the rending tale of his infant daughter’s death. In between, he is a Dada-dabbling teen pricking Tito-era social conventions, a jaded young man negotiating the dissolution of Yugoslavia and an immigrant rambling around Chicago, stranded as hell envelops his native city.

Hemon found refuge in soccer, which naturally drew to its lakeside and far-suburban pitches immigrants from all over, usually known by their countries of origin — Brazil, for instance, or, in Hemon’s case, Bosnia. In “If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder,” Hemon recounts two moments of transcendence experienced by his atheist self, the second occurring when he set aside his usual ruthlessness to pass the ball to a genial, aged Italian: “I had the pleasant, tingling sensation of being connected with something bigger and better than me, a sensation wholly inaccessible to those who think soccer is about exercise and relaxation.” Left unspoken beneath this peroration is the reasonable conclusion that Hemon, refugee from a land sundered by ethnic hatred, had found a home in one still struggling to embrace its immigrant heritage.

Having published a handful of novels in his second language, Hemon is a deft narrator. But life, regrettably, refuses to surrender to literature. Repeatedly in these essays, Hemon sets up approaching moments of peril that never quite arrive. His parents attempt to flee with Mek, a beloved purebred dog that surely will mark them as Bosnian elites at checkpoints manned by Serbian militia, and you find yourself cringing: Oh please, not the dog. … But parents and Mek make it to Canada. In Chicago, Hemon enters the mysteriously open door to his landlady’s apartment and stumbles through the pungent clutter to discover … she’s not there.

And, as it happens, one essay/chapter is titled “Life During Wartime,” but it actually describes the period just before the siege of Sarajevo, in 1991. Hemon served as culture editor at a magazine called Our Days, where “we had shared contempt for the old socialist regime as well as for the politics of rabid nationalism, which was busy at the time dismantling the sorry remnants of Communist Yugoslavia.” Here Hemon writes colorfully of a Cabaret-like intemperance before the inevitable deluge, which he missed when the United States Information Agency brought him to the U.S. for what was to be a one-month cultural exchange.

When he returns to Sarajevo’s war-scarred streets in 1997, he is again a visitor, and doubly alienated. He recalls his earlier urban strolls as those of a Baudelairian flâneur: “Nowadays in Sarajevo, death is all too easy to imagine and is continuously, undeniably present, but back then the city, a beautiful, immortal thing, an indestructible republic of the urban spirit — was fully alive both inside and outside me.”

Throughout these essays, Hemon writes of this bifurcation — interiority and exteriority, as he refers to it, and you sense that, in place of a harrowing narrative of war endured, he is left, instead, with the story of a man trying to regain the synthesis of self and world that he lost when he accepted the USIA’s offer. It is unavoidably a much-less gripping story. Hemon’s account of his first marriage, for instance, differs from the numberless tales of other foundered loves only in that it involves a transplanted Bosnian writer.

For most of Hemon’s Lives, however, what might have been a navel-gaze is redeemed by his facility with his adopted language. Sometimes he strays a modifier too far, or lets slip a cliché, but mostly his prose is crisp and clever. It carries the book, really, because he seems determined to avoid anything like message or meaning. “[W]e stayed away from anyone who, we feared, might offer us the solace of that supreme platitude, God,” Hemon writes in the last, searing chapter about his dying daughter. From her elder sister’s need for an imaginary friend Hemon pulls the unremarkable conclusion that humans need stories to make sense of life, but he leaves it to the reader to see that words alone bridge interior and exterior, self and world.

THE BOOK OF MY LIVES, Aleksandar Hemon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 212 pages