Book Review: The book of my lives

A Geography of The Soul: A passionate review of Alexandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives

Spoilers in some quotes. If you haven’t read the book, try not to read the quotes.

cover photo of ‘THE BOOK OF MY LIVES’ Souce: goodreads

“Its [the city’s] indelible sensory dimension, its concreteness, seemed to defy the abstractions of war. I have learned since then that war is the most concrete thing there can be, a fantastic reality that levels both interiority and exteriority into the flatness of a crushed soul”.

In this marvelous book, there were two notions that I loved. The first is the relationship humans have with their cities; my dream-research project as an urban planner. Somewhere around the book Sasha Hemon refers to his relationship with Sarajevo, his home city, as a “geography of the soul”. When you love a city, when you own it, you feel it in your blood and in your bones. That’s why something inside us die when we leave our homes… our cities. [See previous blog post about Tadmor]. Hemon says “If my mind and my city were the same thing then I was losing my mind”. Phrases like this are what make this book so genuine. It sneaks under your skin and surprises you from the inside.

The second important thought is the duality of interiority and exteriority, the dominant thread line throughout the book. ‘The Book of My Lives’ explains almost everything through this philosophy; home and immigration, language, even child development. And this is how ‘the world doubles’ hence the different layers of relationships with things and people and different lives experienced internally and externally.

Very early in the book, we are faced with this duality through the concept of otherness and difference, “the moment you other someone, you other yourself”. We get introduced to the writer’s point of view on difference, and complex identities. “The moment you point at a difference, you enter, regardless of your age, an already existing system of differences, a network of identities, all of them ultimately arbitrary and unrelated to your intentions, none of them a matter of your choice”. It might be painfully unoriginal to the reader that I always find a way to insert Amin Maalouf’s writing in all my reviews, well… Ignore it! This specific idea of one’s identity as fragmented and contradictory pieces is what mesmerized me about Maalouf’s writings when I was younger and it thrills me to see it EVERYWHERE.

The mentioned system of differences is particularly visible in many sections referring to the author’s and his family’s experience as an immigrant and the way immigrants view the world. Again this dichotomy shows up in the obsessive comparisons between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, pointing out the contradictions of our simplistic thinking;

“On the other hand, they didn’t really know how to live, which pointed at the ultimate, transcendental difference we had soul, and they were soulless. The fact that they did not love committing atrocities either and that we were at the centre of a brutal, bloody war, which under no circumstances could be constructed as love of life, didn’t at all trouble the good analyst”.

I greatly enjoyed the part about missing one’s food as I always ‘greatly enjoy’ writings about food, and Hemon struggles to find the secret ingredient of ‘the perfect borscht’, a Bosnia traditional dish, as much as he struggles not to lose the memories of his city, and his past life; “What I made in this land of sad abundance was nowhere near what I remembered. I was always missing at least one ingredient, not counting the mystery one. … The food needs to be prepared on the low but steady fire of love and consumed in a ritual of indelible togetherness. The crucial ingredient of the perfect borscht is a large, hungry family”.

Although laid simply as Us and Them and Interior and Exterior, I highly appreciate the writer’s depth in presenting existing complexity in the place where this discussion matters the most; in the Western democratic society. He calls it a ‘neoconservative approach to otherness’, where the good immigrant is the one who adapts to the determined ‘successful standards’ established by this society which is non-questionably the best ever to be created. And this kind of other is the only one ‘tolerable’.

“The others always remind us of who we truly are –we are not them and never will be, because we are naturally and culturally inclined toward the free market and democracy”.

This is not just an obvious disdain for our internal/external contradictions but also an attempt to expose the imaginary narrative of a happy-homogeneous multicultural community, a common space divided by imaginary lines of different identities, a space that we can only enter by acknowledging the supremacy of one culture.

 Legitimization fits snugly into the neo-liberal fantasy of multiculturalism, which is nothing if not a dream of a lot of others living together, everybody happy to tolerate and learn. Differences are thus essentially required for the sense of belonging: as long as we know who we are and who we are not, we are as good as they are. In the multicultural world there are a lot of them, which, incidentally, keeps Western democracies high above everyone else. And where the tolerance level is high, diversity can be celebrated and mind-expanding ethnic food can be explored and consumed, garnished with the exotic purity of otherness. 

I am incurably attracted to books tackling complex identity issues and Alexander Hemon surely has an issue with identity, let alone a complex one. Being a Bosnian, he was repeatedly faced with inquiries of his ethnic/ religious affiliation during and after the war, on which his reply would be: “I am complicated. A cluster of others”. I am greatly inspired by his answer and surely will use this statement in the future since the ‘neo-liberal, multicultural’ society I currently inhabit doesn’t seem to be bored with asking me the same question.

As for how cities come alive in this book I have lots and lots to admire. The city in Hemon’s book is far more than buildings and spaces. The city is us. I happen to agree with this idea even if I lack the talent to call it “a beautiful thing, an indestructible republic of urban spirit – [the city] was fully alive both inside and outside me”.

And since our cities are us you can read the collective mind of people by walking in a city. In Sarajevo – a city worthy of all the music and mystic of its name – you can read it all in people’s faces during the times building up to  the war. I read these parts with a personal experience and God this was so brilliantly written I saw my own city before my eyes. “The city was deflated, the euphoria exhausted……. it was all over. The war had arrived and now we were waiting to see who would live, who would kill, and who would die”. The inexplicable human-city relationship is strongly manifested through memory connections and sense of displacement. Since he spent the war outside Bosnia and visited Sarajevo only after the war, we get a chance to compare his changing feelings of displacement first as an immigrant in Chicago, then as a visitor back in Sarajevo to find everything “familiar to the point of pain and entirely uncanny and distant”.

Again, everything we read we do with personal perspective, and I found an additional thing to admire in this book and writer. We are both fellow ‘flaneurs’. Hemon describes wandering in cities and his love of wandering around, he imagines himself as one of Baudelaire’s flaneurs, as “someone who wanted to be everywhere and nowhere in particular, for whom wandering in the city was the main means of communication with it”.

I have to add reading as another way to communicate with the city, and if one didn’t have plans to visit Sarajevo before, this book will make them do. This man is one of the most delicate writers I have read, and I feel that even when reading his book for the hundredth time, it will still make me cry.

The Book of My Lives is simply a celebration of life, love, diversity, chess, and books. And as Hemon describes moments that have divided his life between ‘before’ and ‘after’, I must say that as a passionate reader, this book certainly divided my reading life into ‘before’ reading it and ‘after’.

“Narrative imagination- and therefore fiction- is a basic evolutionary tool of survival. We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves”.

Book Review: Open City

This work was presented as part of a class I had on Global Cities. The assignment consisted of reading Teju Cole’s Open City and reflect on the novel on it in a ‘non-academic’ manner. The open city in the book is New York city, the book has come to be very dear to me.

Open City: A Novel, By Teju Cole.

Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 17, 2012)

Open City Cover
Open City Cover

Open City is a novel about walking in cities. Mainly the walking takes place in New York, but walking through the pages of the novel takes place around the globe. We see the city through the eyes of Julius. He is doing a psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Presbyteria, lives in Manhattan and regularly walks around the streets of the city. The author chose to describe the city from the point of view of an immigrant. A decision that is as important to the reader as the choice of the city itself, and the loneliness of an immigrant is reflected throughout the whole novel. In my opinion it provided the novel with a fresh look on the city and detached it from the sense of belonging that a native New Yorker might have.

The writing is made in sections, each telling a story of its own, connected in time and flow of events. However the book is far from telling a story in a traditional way. In page 151, he writes “we experience life as continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuity” and his writing style breaks out of being a story towards resembling life itself with its discontinuity.

Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese- French writer and one of my personal favourites, writes in his [Disordered World]: “what is at issue is the gulf that is opening up between our rapid material evolution, which brings us closer together every day, and our too slow moral evolution, which does not allow us to face the tragic consequences of our shrinking world”. In the novel, globalization is manifested also by reflecting on the same two aspects; the connectivity of the world and the disconnectivity of its inhabitants. The former is easily identified by examining the main character; a Nigerian/ German descendant living in the U.S. And as Julius’s journey extends geographically to Brussels in a hopeless search for his grandmother, and timely to his childhood in Lagos, we as readers follow his planned and spontaneous encounters. In each step enriched by different views on immigration, identity, and racism, all which are issues of concern around the world, while enjoying allusions to transnational music pieces and books. The second aspect is portraying severe social disconnectivity. Julius didn’t even know that his next door neighbour died months ago. In page 96 we hear of a story of a bloody robbery that took place during rush hour on a crowded platform in Brussels. The book tries to bring to our attention that we are so fully engrossed with our material matters to question the decline of our moralities.

The issue of disconnectivity or solitude is a dominant thought in the novel. Julius and the other secondary characters are all isolated. Even Moji, who is in a romantic relationship, is excluding her boyfriend from stories of her past. Loneliness is the one thing in common between all the characters; whether they are in a delicate age [Professor Saito] or after a personal achievement [marathon runner], and Julius is always comparing his own solitude to theirs. His solitude intensifies around others. This and other contrasting images are used by the author to engage readers in the character’s experience.

The novel dwells on the many contradictions found in the city; the dream of freedom and the history of slavery, belonging and difference, functionalism and identity, happiness and sadness.  What I found most interesting is the topic of difference. Julius carries his difference as a burden, as an obstacle to his integration into the city. He says in page 77 “the name Julius linked me to another place and was, with my passport and my skin color, one of the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart”. A view that is similar to Farouq’s, the Moroccan student who quotes Palestinian writer Edward Said’s: “difference is never accepted. … It is never seen as containing its own value”. While Dr. Maillotte who had criticized New York for its racism (or not being color-blind) doesn’t believe immigrants need to show their difference in their new society: “Why would you want to move somewhere only to prove how different you are? And why would a society like that want to welcome you?”  (Page 140). Personally I am inclined towards the opinion of Julius’s friend, whose name we never know of, saying that people are like trees. We might be of the same specie but each one is a different tree “can’t have too many trees in the city”.

“Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tin interior had scant sense about what flowed around them”

At the start of the novel, Julius questions how the city could have been seen by the birds flying over it. I think the book is trying to answer the same question. Other than being a place of many contradictions, the city in the novel is also a place of diversity, anonymity, an environment of violence and constant flow. This last thought articulated in its physical and metaphorical sense like describing the relationship with the water in Manhattan, “Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tin interior had scant sense about what flowed around them” and he continues in page 54 to condemn city dwellers for their unjust replacement “… and the generations of New Yorkers who had come here to the promenade to watch wealth and sorrow flow into the city”. In a few more pages he returns to this flow, this time with less criticism, and a desire to fit in; “Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.”

There remains an idea in the novel that draws my attention, probably because of its relevance to my home city, Damascus. That is the question of integration and diversity. As Farouq puts it, in page 109 describing the people calling places all over the world while sitting in one physical space maintaining their individuality; “people can live together but still keep their own values intact”. Historically, cities guaranteed freedom for their citizens, but integration of difference is another question. I used to view Damascus as a city of integration and tolerance, and I like to believe, naively maybe, that cities can still be the place where anyone can maintain their true identity, no matter how fragmented it may be, because it resembles the identity of a city; defragmented as the sum of all different pertinences and a whole at the same time.

The book calls New York an open city. Its history is based around waves of immigrations, every wave driven to the city by the myth of freedom, still observable in the statue of liberty and the history of Ellis Island. And while the city is open to receive them like it had done through its history, it also offers the cruel reality that will harvest the lives of many, in a way similar to hundreds of dying birds disoriented by the alluring flame.

Written on 24, November, 2013