When the Bosnian-born writer Aleksandar Hemon recalls the childhood bullies who tormented him and his friends on the streets of 1970s Sarajevo, he remembers their comeuppances too — and how the sweet satisfaction of vengeance, the exhilaration of victory, curdled into something more grubby and less glorious. One bully, pummeled in an ambush by a bigger teenager, hobbled off and left behind a single dirty tennis shoe; another boy had his faux-leather book bag stolen by one of Hemon’s friends.
It’s these forlorn objects that have lodged themselves in Hemon’s memory, carrying with them the weight of the bullies’ humiliation; losing a bag or a shoe was bound to get these boys into trouble with their parents. In the two-in-one autobiographical volume “My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You,” Hemon imagines his tormentors’ panic and suffering, compulsively identifying with them in spite of himself.
“Empathy is a terrible thing, blinds you to proper judgment of people and their terrible deeds,” Hemon writes — not that he could will himself into doing without it. In his fiction, which includes the slippery inventiveness of “Nowhere Man” and the mordant historical resurrection of “The Lazarus Project,” Hemon has always played with boundaries — of places, of selves — exploring how lines that can be so porous and contingent could also matter so much.
Hemon has published a previous volume of nonfiction, “The Book of My Lives,” its title suggesting the multiplicity of his experiences — from a boyhood of comic books and football stickers through a sullen adolescence to his eventual arrival in the United States in January 1992, during the death rattle of the former Yugoslavia. He settled in Chicago and learned English in earnest in his late 20s; he married, divorced and married again; and he watched his second daughter die as an infant — an experience he has recounted with both a father’s anguish and a crushing clarity.
“My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You” has two front covers, two title pages, two copyright pages; the halves have been placed back-to-back rather than sequentially, separated by a series of uncaptioned black-and-white photos of what are presumably Hemon’s family. There happens to be an ungainly and commercially inescapable bar code on the cover side of “This Does Not Belong to You,” which I took as an excuse to read “My Parents” first. Even though I have absolutely no evidence for it, I imagine Hemon — always attuned to comic dissonance — being either annoyed or amused by the intrusion of something as mundane as a bar code.
Of the two halves, “My Parents” is the more conventionally straightforward. It’s a collection of essays about Hemon’s mother and father — or Mama and Tata — whose comfortable, middle-class existence in Sarajevo was upended and ultimately destroyed by the war. They settled in the Canadian town of Hamilton, Ontario, where they traded intuitive belonging for a hard-won stability. Like Hemon’s fiction, the real-life stories in “My Parents” are so exquisitely constructed that their scaffolding is invisible. You get the sense that he is trying to understand his parents in a way that his younger self did not.
He confesses to having been a nihilistic teenager who was bored by Yugoslavia’s socialist, pan-ethnic project, with its oppressive imposition of order and predictability; only later did Hemon realize that the 1980 death of Josip Broz Tito, the country’s longtime leader, was the beginning of a cataclysmic end. He can discern a shimmering thread of idealism in the Yugoslav experiment, buried amid a stolid reality. His mother escaped the grinding poverty of her female ancestors by benefiting from state-mandated gender equality and public education. His parents still have a picture of Tito hanging in their Canadian home.
“My Parents” is warm, wry and loving — but because this is Hemon, he shows his affection not through sentimental declarations but by paying close attention to specifics. Food — especially the “spoony food” rooted in their family’s peasant past — becomes the seat of his parents’ nostalgia and therefore their identity. Mama and Tata have numerous complaints about the inferiority of Canadian sour cream. Meat is treasured, and lowly vegetables can never rise above a side dish. “Unless something terrible happened,” Hemon writes, “no one in my family has ever eaten only salad for a meal.”
“This Does Not Belong to You” is rawer and stranger, focused more on Hemon than his parents, though the two halves of the book work in tandem. This half is a collection of personal vignettes and fragments: Some of them read as if they could have been notes for “My Parents,” with anecdotes and observations recast in a different form; others seem to alter or even undercut stories in “My Parents” that have been burnished to a high sheen.
In “My Parents,” Hemon depicts himself as a gentle boy who dreamed of having a pet, “as all non-psychopath kids do,” bringing home stray animals to cuddle and care for. In “This Does Not Belong to You” he is a junior sadist, tearing off the legs and wings of flies, innovating ways to kill frogs (boiling, hammering), spraying a flea-ridden orange kitten with poison — “the first creature I have ever killed (but not the last).”
That these two Hemons live side by side in the same volume is a way for him to show how the act of writing allows him to “organize my interiority.” To narrate is to impose meaning on an arbitrary existence; storytelling selects from the random data of experience and inevitably distorts it. “Take this thing you’re reading,” he writes in the last pages of “This Does Not Belong to You.” “I could’ve assembled a different version of it from an alternative set of fragments; I could’ve been born of different parts; I could’ve assembled someone else.”
There’s a fatalism that suffuses “This Does Not Belong to You,” an overwhelming sense of mortality and the suspicion that storytelling might never be enough. This despair is leavened by what Hemon so beautifully and concretely conveys in “My Parents,” with Hemon as a middle-aged son who is carefully and movingly trying to make sense of it all.
Writing about one exhausting excursion with his inexhaustible father (involving beehives, a color TV, the World Cup, and a tractor), Hemon distills their relationship into a couple of vibrant sentences, impeccably timed: “I just sat there accepting the fact that I was but a loose particle in my father’s hypercharged narrative field. Meanwhile, he was already contentedly slurping his soup.”