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Bosnian-American turns everything into a powerful story

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BOSNIAN-AMERICAN writer Aleksandar Hemon's latest title suggests it's a memoir. It's not, but the essay collection nonetheless nicely delivers on what the title implies.

Hemon offers a roughly chronological series of highly personal pieces. They run from his childhood in Bosnia, to his debauchery-rich young-adult existence in the last days of the former Yugoslavia, to his expat exile in Chicago, and finally to his settling into Americanized domesticity as a husband and father.

As a young man he led an "exhaustingly messy existence" in Sarajevo while running afoul of Communist state-security forces. Just as war broke out in Bosnia, he escaped to Chicago, where he, initially, led an exhaustingly depressing existence.

Some of the pieces overlap, some don't. But they all showcase his talent as an essayist. Hemon is better known as a novelist. His novels include the Beatles-inspired title Nowhere Man (2002) and The Lazarus Project (2008).

He allows he writes fiction "because I cannot not do it," but has to be "pressed into writing non-fiction." You'd never know it from this collection.

Twenty years ago Hemon's spoken English was barely passable; his command of written English, less than. Curiously, how he achieved the skills to author essays of this calibre is neither addressed nor explained.

However, fully in evidence is his literary mastery of his acquired language. He portrays Sarajevo as a beautiful, complex city. But also dangerous.

It's palpably remembered as a city on the cusp of a fate most of its citizens, including Hemon, were in denial of -- being laid siege to, and half-destroyed by, a Bosnian Serb army.

The glimpses of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and his bald promise to the hapless Bosnian parliament that genocide would be visited upon Muslims and Croats if they dared secede from the rump Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Croatia had already declared themselves independent republics), are chilling.

Karadzic ultimately delivered on his promise, complete with concentration camps and mass executions.

Hemon also offers real-life tales about, and observations upon, his daily life as an immigrant-cum-refugee in 1990s Chicago. His topics are as quirky as his cosmopolitan coterie of weekly pick-up-soccer-in-the-park companions and as brutal as the slow, agonizing blunder that was his first marriage.

Hemon is an urban creature. Cities are at the core of his sense of self. It's not until he realizes this that "my immigrant interior had begun to merge with my American exterior."

"Large parts of Chicago had entered me and settled there," he writes, "I fully owned those parts now. I saw Chicago through the eyes of Sarajevo and the two cities now created a complicated internal landscape in which stories could be generated."

The book's last piece is wholly unlike anything that's come before. It's a sad read, about his youngest daughter's terminal illness, and an acceptance of death devoid, for him, of redemption.

It's a fine, and unflinchingly honest, rendering of his whole family's plunge into the nightmarish world of acute medical care.

It also proves Hemon can turn any experience, even the most personal, into a powerfully reflective story.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J7

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