“My Body Lives in History”
The author Aleksandar Hemon on writing the body at war and his Sarajevan Jewish protagonist.
Author photo: Velibor Božovic
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The World and All That It Holds, the new novel by the acclaimed Bosnian American writer Aleksandar Hemon published last week, is a story of longing. The novel’s Sephardic Jewish protagonist, Rafael Pinto, is happy to spend his student years in Vienna, the imperial capital he finds far more accepting of his sexual interest in men than provincial Sarajevo. But when he is conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army at the start of the First World War, he spends decades away from Sarajevo pining for his home city. Pinto makes his way continually East, together with his lover Osman—a Sarajevan Muslim he meets in the trenches of Galicia and loses in the sands of Central Asia—and, eventually, his daughter Rahela. The novel’s plot jumps from the battlefields of Europe to Tashkent, tenuously held by the Bolsheviks, then to the Ferghana Valley, Xinjiang, and Shanghai.
Nostalgia for Sarajevo is a frequent theme of Hemon’s earlier novels; he’s a native of the city, which, through a fluke of fate, he happened to leave for Chicago just before the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992. In The World and All That It Holds, Pinto’s pining for his lover blurs with his longing for the city, his impossible desire to return home. Pinto’s world as described by Hemon is a world ravaged by war, in which human survival becomes an embodied and often sensual preoccupation—and also the narrative’s driving force.
In his previous novels, Hemon—who is not Jewish—has likewise displayed his fascination with Jewish characters, but this time, the approach is more direct. For example, in The Lazarus Project (2008), the present-day narrator’s attempts to enter the world of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in Chicago at the turn of the century are frequently mediated through his cerebral awareness of his difference from those characters. By contrast, in The World and All That It Holds, Hemon’s contemporary narrator recedes into the background. This allows a Jewish protagonist who lives at a time far removed from Hemon’s—and who thinks in a mix of tongues, including Ladino, not known to the author-narrator—to take center stage. By de-emphasizing the unbridgeable distance between narrator and characters, Hemon writes with a deeper intimacy and empathy for the characters populating his fictional world than ever before.
I spoke to Hemon about writing the body at war; his attraction to Jewish characters; and the effects of multilingualism on the narrative. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sasha Senderovich: Nearly all of your fiction to date has dealt, in one way or another, with the 1990s Bosnian War and the deadly siege of Sarajevo. But the protagonists of all your other novels missed the war, having made it, like you, out of Bosnia just as the violence escalated. Many of your protagonists, therefore, have a constant desire to gain access to stories of the war through dialogue with those who have experienced it firsthand. Narrators of your earlier novels are very careful to remind the reader that the trauma of that war is not something they can ever really approach.
The World and All that It Holds is different: Your protagonist’s life is shaped by the direct experience of war—though it’s the First World War at the beginning of the 20th century, not the Bosnian War at the century’s end—as a combatant, a POW, and a displaced person. The novel spends a considerable amount of time in Rafael Pinto’s thoughts, or in his drug-induced hallucinations, wherein his physical and psychological wounds remain very much open. What was writing directly about war like emotionally?
Aleksandar Hemon: I was not there for the Bosnian War, but my closest friend was and so were many people I know. When I go to Sarajevo, my friends and I still hang out and I go to where I would have been during the war had I stayed for the siege. In some ways, the distance was not that big for me to imagine. I could see the aftermath, complete with physical damage to buildings and the sites of massacres, and I could reconstruct the experience based on people’s testimonies. For this novel, there are no direct witnesses I’m connected to. There was a lot more imagining to be done.
Even during the siege of Sarajevo when I was in Chicago, I could watch stuff on CNN, talk to people when I could get them on the phone, and receive letters. With the First World War, I have no synchronous access at all. I can read testimonies; I can incorporate some tidbits from other wars during my lifetime into the narrative, as it were. But other than that, it had to be constructed from scratch, which was a challenge.
I liked this challenge. Early on, I decided not to travel anywhere to do research for this book. I had spent a month in Shanghai in 2000, but other than that, I have not been to any of the places where the novel’s plot unfolds. I was not in places where the front lines of the First World War would have been, not in Brody, not in Tashkent, not in the Ferghana Valley, not in the Taklamakan desert. And it was important to me ideologically, because to me, this is the issue of literature: Can we imagine the lives of others in history or in any narrative? It is easy to fall into a trap and think, or be forced to think, that you can only write about people like yourself, whoever you may be. And I have written about myself, but I have spent a lot of it in my earlier work: There have been inevitable repetitions and obsessive returns to the same themes and situations. Here I had to fully imagine what life in a POW camp in Tashkent was like for someone with whom I would not have overlapped; even if we lived in the same Sarajevo neighborhood, there would have been no contact between us, no synchronicity whatsoever. In some ways it’s very personal precisely because of that, because of how this historical distance added to my experience of writing it.
SS: In your novel The Lazarus Project, the Sarajevo-born, Chicago-based narrator’s American wife asks him how he can write about Jews when he in’t one, referring to the novel he’s trying to write about Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant from the Russian Empire who was killed by Chicago’s Chief of Police in 1908.
I imagine this may also be a question you’ve asked yourself. You’ve written in your nonfiction about your Bosnian family’s non-Jewish Ukrainian roots, and still your novels are filled with Jewish characters and protagonists. These characters have usually been American Jews of Ashkenazi background—some of them, like the nebbish in The Making of Zombie Wars (2015), comically and self-consciously stereotyped. Now, in The World and All That It Holds, there’s Pinto, a Sephardic Jew and native speaker of Bosnian and Ladino. What draws you to Jewish characters in your fiction—and where in your fictional universe does Rafael Pinto come from?
AH: With The World and All That It Holds, a novel that deals with migration and displacement in the 20th century, I wanted to start with Sarajevo. There was something fascinating about the continuity of migration in the story of someone like Raphael Pinto, both in life and in his historical inheritance. Sephardic Jews arrived in the 15th or the 16th century and so were as native as anyone else in Sarajevo, but they also had a broader history of expulsion and migration. The famous 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah that was carried from Spain to Sarajevo is both a symbol and a material fact of that migration. The World and All That It Holds is a novel about moving through space and through history, and so it was hard to imagine a better protagonist than a Sephardic Jew from Sarajevo.
One of the sources that inspired the book is this record by Flory Jagoda, who was a Sarajevo native and one of very few Sarajevan Jews who survived the Holocaust as a young woman. She then migrated to the United States in 1947. She recorded an album, Kantikas di mi Nona (Songs of My Grandmother) and I remember listening to some of these songs in the late 1980s before the war in Bosnia. Later in her life (she died a couple of years ago in Baltimore), she recorded an album of Sephardic Jewish songs called Memories of Sarajevo. [Ed. note: Some of Jagoda’s songs are the inspiration for a forthcoming album by Bosnian musician Damar Imamović, also called The World and All That It Holds, created in collaboration with the novel.] She retained this memory of Jewish Sarajevo in songs, even as there were so few Jews left in Sarajevo after the Second World War, and so few Ladino speakers. That spoke to me; she pronounces “nočes” [nights] in one of her songs with a Sarajevan accent and I teared up listening to it. When I heard it for the first time in 1989, I thought that we are the same in some way. Later this affinity was exacerbated when I myself was displaced from Sarajevo, along with so many other people I know. And so, unfortunately, this template for the life of migration and displacement is easily available in Jewish history.
Also, I wanted to activate the multilingualism of a protagonist like Rafael Pinto. I wanted him to think in two or three languages simultaneously. And that was available by way of Ladino.
SS: This multilingualism seems key to the novel. In your earlier novels, there are characters who teach English to immigrants. In many ways, these novels are about learning English. The World and All That It Holds brings this relationship with English to a new level. The novel’s main protagonist does not think in English, so what we’re reading is, in a sense, a narrative in translation, with bits of the original languages (Bosnian, Ladino, some German, some Russian, various dialects of Chinese) scattered throughout. You have a keen ear for an English that bears the weight of love and trauma, war and history, that have been experienced in a mix of tongues.
AH: My earlier novels were in some sense stories about ways to participate in a new language, a new culture, a new place—successfully or not. With this book, I wanted a multilingual consciousness that does not need to convert in any way to something else. Where there are no functioning societies or schools where one can learn a language, you pick it up as you go along—and this is the kind of world through which this novel’s protagonists move. This language becomes what in linguistics is known as a macaronic language, referring to the way that many migrants combine their home languages with other languages of places they pass through. In my own dilettante linguistic theory, all languages started out as macaronic languages, and in some ways all languages are already multilingual. So I wanted to construct that.
Now, the challenge is that you have to make one language dominant. Ideally, the novel would have been written in the private and idiosyncratic language that Pinto and his daughter Rahela speak during their peregrinations, but they cannot even put a sentence together that would be comprehensible to anyone but the two of them. And so I used English, which is kind of transparent; it has no source and no social context for any of the characters. In some ways it stands in for Bosnian, which is the language that most people in the book speak. I wanted to create this impression of a macaronic language with English as its basis. It’s one of the things I had to work out with my editor: I insisted that there would be no italics in the book, because imagine a book with all these languages and all those words in italics, it would be a total fucking mess. I don’t speak Ladino or German, let alone some of those other languages. In other words, I’m not even a perfect reader of my book myself. In some ways, this novel presupposes the possibility of the existence of a utopian reader, someone who would know all those languages. I was fully aware of the risk. Some reviewers are now saying that all these other languages, which are often not translated in the text, are distracting, that they want just one language, even though all the non-English words are probably less than one percent of the text. But even if it’s not good for sales, I like this sense of the utopian project—a book written for a reader who doesn’t exist yet and might never exist. And in fact, knowing that people would not know all the words, just as I don’t, also excited me, because the consciousness of someone else cannot be fully known. We can try to access it and do our best, but Pinto is Pinto, and none of us are Pinto.
SS: The World and All That It Holds opens in Sarajevo with an elaborate erotic fantasy—fueled by the opiate laudanum—as Rafael Pinto projects onto a uniformed imperial official his memories of and desire for men he had known in Vienna. Somewhere in the middle—or on the sidelines—of this fantasy, the shots that kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife ring out in Sarajevo itself, setting in motion the First World War. The historical event central to this novel is not a cerebral fact; we enter it through an experience that is deeply sensual and tactile—an experience in which the body is central.
This embodied writing does not let up: This is a novel in which you are imaginatively open to an epic and intensely sexual love story, where you linger on erotic sensations, where you drop your main protagonist—with his keen awareness of his own body—into the trenches of Galicia, subject him to the unquenchable thirst of the deserts of Central Asia and the haze of Shanghai’s opium dens, and put him next to the fragile body of a child. Was your research helpful in writing embodied scenes with such specificity?
AH: I worked on this novel for 12 years. I read books for each chapter—about the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo, about trench warfare, about the Brusilov Offensive—and then I would write the chapter. But, you know, in none of those books do bodies—individual bodies—figure. Because, supposedly, history is a science that somehow depends on abstraction and generalization. This abstraction is a function of avoiding the body. But my body lives in history, as do the bodies of people I know. This specificity is the domain of literature. And of course, one of the things that war and violence quickly teach you is that the target is the body; the destruction of the body is the whole point. So I imagined that—the feeling of thinking continuously about your own mortality, that every moment could be the last. I wrote the kind of special relationship war imposes on one’s body.
What is the universal human experience? The fact of our bodies is what we all share, we all piss and shit and make love and scratch ourselves when we itch. I’ve always believed in the body as an anchor of shared experience. I don’t know any other way to tell these stories.
Sasha Senderovich is the author of How the Soviet Jew Was Made (Harvard University Press, 2022). With Harriet Murav, he co-translated David Bergelson’s novel Judgment (Northwestern University Press, 2017). He is an assistant professor of Slavic, Jewish, and International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.