Hemon Not on Hemon

In ‘The World and All It Holds’, Aleksandar Hemon broadens his literary gaze into history

Aleksandar Hemon has built one of the more impressive bodies of literary work of the past 30 years by telling stories, to a greater or lesser extent, about Aleksandar Hemon.

And why not? Smart, wickedly funny, honest and capable of confronting and writing piercingly about things painful beyond knowing—exile as his native city is being destroyed, the death of a young child—Aleksandar Hemon is a compelling guide to our modern condition.

So it’s a big leap that his latest novel, The World and All that It Holds, is not primarily, or even secondarily (though possibly tertiarily) about Aleksandar Hemon. Instead it’s a decades-spanning story revolving around two star-crossed Bosniak soldiers, one Sephardi Jew and the other Muslim, and set against some of the bloodiest scenes of the 20th Century.


The World and All that It Holds follows the story of Rafael Pinto. Pinto’s a laudanum-dabbling Sarajevo pharmacist who, in the span of a few minutes on a fine June day in 1914, goes from locking lips with an unsuspecting imperial army officer to witnessing the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He subsequently is swept into the trenches of the Eastern Front, where he falls in love with fellow soldat Osman, only to be separated during the chaos of the Russian Civil War. He spends the ensuing decades making his way across the deserts and mountains of central Asia, eking out survival in Shanghai, and struggling to raise a girl not his own, all the while never giving up hope of reuniting with Osman.

Now, while an historical epic The World may be, a Herman Wouk novel it is not (The World weighs in at a svelte 331 pages, for one). The novel very much takes place in Hemonland. Periodic, omniscient authorial intrusions pop up to remind you you’re reading a story, as do other postmodern shenanigans. Familiar Hemonic markers (Sarajevo, the pain of separation from home, the unshakeable power of vast, impersonal forces to blow up your little plans, etc.) abound, as do self-referential Easter eggs. The assassination of the crown prince calls back to a tale in Hemon’s breakthrough story collection, The Question of Bruno, and fans of that debut will appreciate the cameo by a familiar name. And, yes, an obvious Aleksandar Hemon stand-in does eventually show up.

But for the most part, Hemon steps back to let his characters characters breathe and the story flow. And as one might expect based on the author’s protean talents, Hemon delivers.

One example: His 14-page rendering of the Austrian front’s total disintegration in face of the 1916 Brusilov Offensive. From Pinto’s first vague awareness of the shelling that will bring  catastrophe (“The top of the tree with the stork nest suddenly vanished — it was there and then it wasn’t, a patch of blinding turquoise sky in its stead.”) to his dodging flying body parts to his hiding among the dead and then, finally, to his witnessing the cold-blooded mop-up of his fellow soldats by Russian soldiers, it’s as compelling and harrowing a battle narrative as you’ll find. And, yes, that includes Papa Hemingway.

At the same time, Hemon avoids the superficial Significant Event tourism that can undermine prestige historical fiction. That’s in part because his characters find themselves in extreme situations—delirious in a Russian POW camp in Tashkent, tortured by anti-Bolsheviks, burnming in the Taklamakan Desert, strung out in a Shanghai shtetl under Japanese occupation—that are way off the usual maps. And Hemon’s characters don’t have time to expound on the world-historical actively trying to kill them. They’re too busy trying to stay alive, which in the case of Pinto includes fantasizing about a future life with Osman. Early on he dreams of living together in the wild, never wearing clothes, far beyond familial expectations and society’s prying eyes; eventually he longs just to see him again. These fantasies, along with recurring visions of Osman offering him comfort and advice — and increasingly, following injury, opiates — keep him going against all odds.

The other sustaining force is Pinto’s not uncomplicated love for his de facto daughter — and we’re to understand Osman’s actual daughter—Rahela. Pinto, understandably, feels betrayed when the baby is handed off to him after Osman vanishes, last seen riding off to delay menacing Red soldiers in what’s now Uzbekistan. But Osman’s  final remarks—“I will always be with you, Osman says. Always.”—compel Pinto to take up the burden and carry her across the brutal topography of Central Asia.

More than once he contemplates handing Rahela off to clearly more competent female caregivers—all the better to free himself to find find Osman—but chastising visions of Osman and his growing attachment prevent him. Instead he teaches her a polyglot language that is unique to them, shields her the best he can from the perils they face on the road, saves her life,  and takes her all the way to Shanghai. Where she will leave him but return years later, wiser and more understanding, to take him home. Lying if I said that the final transcendent sort-of family reunion didn’t hit hard.

Hemon sets the epilogue in Jerusalem on the eve of 9/11, where a woman not unlike an older Rahela shares her story with a writer not unlike Aleksandar Hemon. It’s divided readers. I liked the intrusion, personally, for if nothing else regrounding in the grubby world of modern tragedy where stories like Pinto’s fantasia happen every day.

Hemon says in the afterword that this story didn’t come easy and was 12 years in the making. It paid off as The World stands as his most ambitious novel yet and manages to deliver on the title.

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Jim Arndorfer

Jim Arndorfer is a writer in Milwaukee.

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