'Book of My Lives': Aleksander Hemon's remarkable tale

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Author Aleksandar Hemon

Author Aleksandar Hemon (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune / March 15, 2013)

Hemon is not a sentimental guy.

“I do not wish to express ‘strength' in these situations,” he said of his family's troubles. He is warm, funny at times but nonchalant. Asked how he was able to write so well in English so fast, a story one might assume is worthy of a story itself, he explained that he had no choice. That, in 1995, after three years of flailing at bad jobs in Chicago (bike messenger, restaurant worker), he simply began writing, not always knowing what words meant in English, but looking each one up and storing it on an index card. He had studied literature and written stories at the University of Sarajevo, so he “reread in English the books I had already read,” he said, “partly to see how they worked in English and what they meant now — in light of significant developments.”

Meaning, well, that the literature professor who had meant the most to Hemon during his college days in Sarajevo turned out to be a proponent of the Bosnian genocide (and later killed himself).

“I had thought there was solidarity between people of sophisticated tastes,” Hemon said. “Turns out, life does not work like that.”

His goal, he said, was simply to bide his time, steeping himself in writing and books. He received a master's degree in literature at Northwestern University, then went to Loyola University for his doctorate. He began making a name for himself in literary journals.

“I was literally five pages from finishing my thesis when my agent called and said she had sold my book,” he said. “So, I literally stopped writing, stood up and never finished.”

He made a hand-wiping motion.

I asked, is that arrogant?

He replied, how so?

I said, a book deal is no promise of success.

He told me a story: “James Joyce was 19, and he went up to Yeats, who was much older, and said, ‘You are too old for me to help.' I remember reading that and thinking, ‘(Expletive) yeah.' But you have to be a little crazy to write. I want to write a masterpiece, though I have not yet probably, and if this makes me arrogant, OK.”

One final thing: Hemon will never leave Chicago.

He says this. His wife says this. Though when I mentioned it, he said: “I needed the infrastructure of a hometown. But I wasn't looking to be rooted. I was looking to spread wide, not deep. I just wanted to know a lot of people.”

The truth is, as unsentimental as he seems, he is sentimental about the city. At the most recent monthly, invitation-only gathering he hosts at Hopleaf — started after Isabel died, as a way of building a community of creative types — he never dropped his goofy grin, jutting out his upper lip in delight. The room was stuffed with artists, and Hemon was the center of attention without seeming like the center of attention.

Which is perfect.

His best friend from home, Velibor Bozovic, now a photographer in Montreal, put it differently, very Bosnian:

“I was in Sarajevo throughout the war. My first trip out, I went to Chicago. I hadn't seen Sasha in five years,” he said. “It was so cold, but we had to walk the whole city anyway! He had to tell me about the neighborhoods, the architecture, the people, so many things. He was so obviously in love. But then, after (making) a radical cut from your old life, you learn to survive. Sasha might have ended up in hell, and I'm not sure anything would be different.”

Twitter @borrelli

Aleksandar Hemon discusses his new book of stories, "The Book of My Lives," and more with the Tribune's Christopher Borrelli. 7 p.m. Wednesday at Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave.; $15 at 312-222-4369 or tribnation.com/events.

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