Of all family mythology, the story of how our parents met is the most dependent on chance.
Traffic, a delayed train, or the decision to go to a different bar, and that fabled meeting might never have happened. Our parents would have missed each other, and we would not exist. “This is how history works,” Aleksandar Hemon writes in “My Parents,” “arbitrarily and irreversibly.” In this moving memoir, Hemon approaches the general through the particular, capturing the refugee experience of displacement through writing about his Bosnian family.
There was nothing particularly special about the wedding of Hemon’s parents, except the time and place the newlyweds lived: Tito’s Yugoslavia. During the Cold War, people like his parents, who were “born in homes with dirt floors, ended up with college degrees and good jobs in big cities. They owned cars and weekend houses, spent summer vacations on the coast and traveled out of the country without visas. They lived in rent-free apartments provided by the state companies where they worked through retirement.” It all sounds rather bourgeoise for a socialist country, and indeed, in Hemon’s telling, Tito’s Yugoslavia was universally loved for its creation of a middle class. There was a social stability now incomprehensible in contemporary cultures — similar, ironically, to a nostalgic idea of 1950s America, at the height of capitalism.
“Nostalgia can be dangerous when it becomes a longing for an idealized past.”
Nostalgia pervades every page of “My Parents,” in the word’s original sense of meaning “acute homesickness.” Hemon still feels like Bosnia is his home, even though he hasn’t lived there since 1992, and this “private, personal nostalgia” has been the oil well of his career. But nostalgia can be dangerous when it becomes a longing for an idealized past. “A homeland cannot be constituted without nostalgia, without retroactively establishing a past utopia,” Hemon writes, and so “nationalist nostalgia is thus the source for insidious fantasies without which any Make X-land Great Again ideology is impossible, providing excuses for genocidal operations needed to restore the imaginary original purity.”
The genocidal operations he likely has in mind is the Bosnian War, which destroyed the stability Yugoslavia had achieved under Tito, and turned Hemon’s family into refugees. Hemon stayed in Chicago, where he was visiting, and his parents fled on the last train to leave Sarajevo before the siege. They settled in Canada, safe but having lost everything, particularly the social context that constituted their identity. Of his mother, Hemon writes “overnight she became a nobody, she often says, a nothing.” But the genocide could include World War II, which also turned the Hemon family into refugees, and it could point to genocides to come, catastrophes happening now and catastrophes that await.
In Bosnian, the word katastrofa has an expansive meaning, at least in Hemon’s family. Yes, it can refer to wars and genocide, but also to life’s daily inconveniences. For Hemon’s father, traffic is a katastrofa. For Hemon himself, his soccer team’s poor defense against set pieces is a katastrofa. His mother liberally uses kastastrofa to assume the worst possible outcome of any given situation, protecting herself from bad things happening by imagining them happening beforehand. In Greek, katastrophe means “overturning,” as in the overturning of normal life during war. And in tragedy, catastrophe is what necessitates the resolution of the plot; there is no denouement without it. There is also no history without catastrophe. It is how we make sense of the world. We even organize the narration of our lives around the catastrophes we experience — breakups, injuries, deaths. “The price of this self-soothing is terrible,” Hemon writes, “even if it is well worth it.”
With sections on beekeeping (his father’s passion), literature (his mother’s a bibliophile), and love, “My Parents” is not all grim. The chapter on food will not only have you heading to the kitchen, but laughing out loud. Describing his parents uncomfortably eating at a restaurant, Hemon gets on a roll like he’s doing stand-up. For his parents, “food is an existential necessity, an irreplaceable element in the structure of daily life, and it should never be … around with in some expensive place that also happens to be devoid of friends and family.”
It’s in his chapter on music, however, where Hemon eloquently articulates the beautiful sorrow of Slavic culture, particularly with the Yugoslav songs known as starogradska. “Similar to the Bosnian sevdalinka,” he explains, “which is infused with sevdah — a pleasant feeling of losing oneself to the hopelessness of love, to time passing, to life and the defeats it inflicts — the starogradska song generates dert, a kind of ecstasy where nothing matters but this moment loaded with tears, wine, song, love.”
When you finish “My Parents,” you flip the book over and start “This Does Not Belong to You,” a separate collection of isolated memories, musings and anecdotes. This is Hemon at his most contemplative, whimsical, and personal. He’s written autobiographical fiction and a collection of personal essays, but “This Does Belong to You,” being his most fragmented work, reflects his truest self. After all, the self is nothing but loosely glued together fragments of memories and feelings that we misperceive as a whole — or as Hemon phrases it, “a unity that doesn’t hold together.” “This Does Not Belong to You” is Hemon looking deeply into himself, mining the recesses of his mind, and while he doesn’t always strike gold, it is, like “My Parents,” a joy to join in the reflection.
MCD; 368 pp., $28
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard.