The ‘arbitrary exactness’ of small things that survive in family lore through individual memory (‘Therein lies the difference between story and history’) finally emerges as Hemon revisits the past — now his own, despite the hint in the title — in vivid, occasionally feverish, captivating fragments. ‘There are no random memories’, and that’s what makes these details — a shit-filled ditch, a golden lunch box, a shattered glass pane flying into a boy’s face, a ‘cool pre-kiss head tilt’, a Fiat crossing a flooded road, water bursting through the floor — strike a chord. If the first part merely suggested that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’, here the message grows more urgent: only what has been described counts as lived experience. Not worrying about looking too Freudian, this variety of memoir invites you to contemplate your own reasons for remembering things. Gradually, the unnecessary bits fade away as you read: ‘A lifelong project, it’s been for me, going home.’
My Parents / This Does Not Belong to You sometimes feels strained. Its halves repel one another. But even if it reads more like an abridgment of the greater book than a new chapter, there are few living authors who illuminate so heartbreakingly the wormholes between present and past, or who are so merciless in recovering the symbol-saturated, eerily lit land that is childhood. Nabokov, to whom Hemon has often been compared, wrote appreciatively of the “syncopal kick” his own exile gave him. Hemon reminds us that most of the world’s displaced are not nobility; for them, that kick can be deadly.
My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You is in part an exercise in empathy. Writing directly and dexterously, Hemon brings depth and a sharp focus to his parents’ migrant narratives, showing particularly how such narratives are shaped by war. In considering what nationhood might mean when you feel yourself neither a native nor a stranger abroad, he is both meditative and concise. He tries to find solace in this confusion, and describes it as “an irreducible and incredibly rich identity rooted in concentric homelands”. But the homelands left behind are “no longer available except by way of memory, music and storytelling”.
The short, dense passages never feel arbitrary. He is able to recreate the process of recovering memories on the page. War seems like an impossibility, and we inhabit what it was like to grow up in the shadow of a paternalistic regime, where everything seemed fully established – “all the points and objects fixed, all the hierarchies and structures unalterable”. The focus is on lesser acts of damage, a tape recorder he took apart in a fit of adolescent curiosity, the shops that were razed in his Sarajevo neighbourhood to build high-rises and supermarkets. Forgetting is the worst crime, because “what could not be recollected never happened and was hence passed over in silence”. In lovely, languorous sentences, Hemon passes over nothing, and records the inner wars of his previous life.