In 2007, novelist Aleksandar Hemon took his wife, Teri, and infant daughter on vacation to Florida. Hemon’s parents, who’d escaped their native Bosnia as the country was devastated in its 1990s civil war, came from Canada to join them. Grim memories followed Hemon’s father, Petar, to the beach. “Teri, tell me about your family,” he said. “What bad happened?”
The question looms over Hemon’s witty, mournful two-in-one memoir. In “My Parents: An Introduction,” Hemon explores his parents’ history and melancholy relationships to food, music, marriage and other cultural touchstones. In “This Does Not Belong to You,” Hemon contemplates his inheritance. In either case, the mood is anxious. To be a Hemon is to be watchful, and what you’re watching for is the other shoe dropping.
So, what bad happened? The Hemons were well off by the standards of postwar Communist Yugoslavia; the family owned a resort cabin. But Petar never shook the memory of his brother blowing his hand off by setting off a mine in his native Ukraine. And the Hemons’ comfortable life was shattered after the fall of communism. Play? Play gets your hand blown off. Patriotism? That gets your resort cabin burned down.
Hemon’s parents are safe now, but the old fearful habits haven’t faded. The proof is as close as their kitchen, where nothing is wasted and everybody tells themselves heels of bread loaves are to be savored. “In my parents’ ethical universe, a portion of which could always be found in their fridge, leftovers play an important role,” he writes.
Hemon rolls his eyes at this austerity, as he often does in this darkly funny book. But he too was forced to be an expat, trapped in Chicago when Bosnia’s civil war started, and one of his daughters died in infancy. (His sorrowful, magnificent essay about that, “The Aquarium,” is the centerpiece of his 2013 book “The Book of My Lives.”)
“This Does Not Belong to You” is the breezier of the two books, built on mini-essays on adolescent ephemera — bullies, masturbation, sports, music, reading. But it’s also shot through with a struggle to make meaning of his parents’ legacy. Past 50, he writes that he’s “a slapped-together sum of conscious feelings and judgments and misconceptions.” He can’t be — doesn’t want to be — his parents. But who can he be instead?
Ultimately, he chooses to be an optimist, at least of a Hemon-ish sort. In Bosnia’s past, he sees America’s future. “The bad guys won in Yugoslavia and ruined what they could, as soon as they could; the bad guys are presently doing pretty well in the United States,” he writes. “But nothing is inevitable until it happens. There is no such thing as historical destiny. Struggle is all.” These two fine books pay tribute to the struggle.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and a member of the National Book Critics Circle board.
My Parents: An Introduction/ This Does Not Belong to You
By: Aleksandar Hemon.
Publisher: FSG/MCD, 384 pages, $28.