Aleksandar Hemon, the infection of memories

In memoirs we understand much more about the author when he talks about others than when he talks about himself. Memoirs become a work of collective documentation when inside there are historical events that radically modify the life of the protagonists and the narrator. If with the novel Nowhere man Aleksandar Hemon reconstructed the life of an expat through the stories of those who knew him, in the memoir My parents – just published in Italian by Crocetti, translation by G. Pannofino – the author talks about his family and the pains of their displacement from Bosnia to Canada after the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars. With maturity – not necessarily age – the veil of the fictional work falls and the author, self-confident, speaks with his own name of what he has already faced with fiction. Without the smoke of fiction, the underlying pain does not change, but from the point of view of actuality, it acquires the value of immanence and urgency. Both personal and collective. “Among the many frightening aspects of war, there is also that of being a narrative field as vast as a universe because it inevitably and brutally leads to migration,” writes Hemon.

All the families who are victims of forced nomadism look alike, and that is why we like to read these memories, in order to identify the maximum moment of tenderness that we always know to hide between the travels of those who migrate and those who flee. In My parents there are many, just as there are many ways to understand what it means to build something new. Migrants are like pioneers, they build a new house to start over. “A perfect homeland is never available,” she writes. “A homeland cannot be built without nostalgia, without establishing a past utopia a posteriori”. The head of migrants – at least this is the case of Hemon’s parents, who arrived at 56 and 57 in a country where they did not speak the language – remains in the lands where they grew up, where they fell in love, where they worked and where their children were born. Hemon’s father, from a Ukrainian family, in addition to the Bosnian nostalgic narrative, has the Ukrainian one of his roots. When Hemon went to Ukraine a few years ago to look for the origins of his father, he said that when he entered the kitchen of a house he smelled the smell of his grandparents’ cooking. The laziness of the Western stereotype portrays immigrants either as children, unwary who hardly speak the local language, or as leeches, stealing jobs. The state goal is assimilation, the migrant’s goal is survival on the one hand, and on the other, maintaining a relationship with the distant homeland in the form of memories, codes handed down, songs, stories, cooking.

Hemon’s book is double, reversible. If you turn the other way we have another cover and another title: All this does not belong to you. Here, always in the form of a memoir, but without a real structure, with prose bits of memories, Hamon reviews even tiny moments of his own Bosnian childhood and adolescence. Here, speaking of oneself and not of one’s parents, the memory becomes even more excruciating, because we no longer speak of others who have irremediably inserted filters in telling you. When it comes to the self, the young self, memory becomes like a virus. “The terrible infection of memories, which do not go away,” he writes, “which remain in circulation in the blood like bacteria until they recognize the presence of their own kind somewhere in the organism, and at that point, all of a sudden, they all become together virulent, and it is bad ». The two books meet in the center and come together through a series of photographs of the author’s parents. Photography is a form of storytelling with less changeable language.

I meet Hemon, just back from the Mantua festival, in a bio-Sicilian restaurant in Brera. On his arm he has a large tattoo with the red eagle of Liverpool FC.He looks like Sasha and is wearing a t-shirt of Sense8, the TV series of the Wachowski sisters for which he wrote the season finale with David Mitchell. Together they also wrote the last chapter of the Matrix saga, The Matrix Resurrectionsreleased in 2021. «I got into the business when I was in Chicago, writing an article on the New Yorker on the film Cloud Atlasbased on Mitchell’s novel, ”he says.

When the war broke out in the Balkans, Hemon was in the United States and stayed there, waiting for his people to arrive, as refugees, in Ontario, because they knew people there. While eating a calzone he says that he has chosen to be American «but without enthusiasm. I don’t have an organic connection with America ». I ask him why he started writing in English. In 1992 he was a journalist and collaborated with a Bosnian magazine writing about cinema. “But then I asked myself: who cares about Meg Ryan’s excellent performance in a romantic comedy while there is war around you?” And so he stopped, saying he could no longer write in Bosnian. “That summer I promised myself that in five years I would write a book in English. After three years I published a story of mine in a magazine ». From there he always wrote his books about him in a language that was not his, following that tradition of expats like Joseph Conrad, Nabokov or Kundera who abandon the codes they grew up with. “I think writers change the language they use,” he says. “They can make things up. I remember my first wife, a real Wasp, who, reading one of my things, told me “You don’t write that” and I replied “Now yes” ».

In front of the coffee Hemon talks about his parents, who are a little past eighty and are doing well. The father keeps busy with beekeeping, and he too started taking hives with a friend who has land outside New York. “When I write novels at a certain moment I start to get attached to the characters, there is a turning point where I understand that I care about them, as if they were friends. For non-fiction it is different, but up to a certain point. I like my parents, I think they are interesting ». I ask them how they reacted when they read the book, which speaks so intimately about them. «My mother raised her finger, as she does to speak at the table when she has to give some news, and she said: ‘You have built a monument for us’».

Aleksandar Hemon, the infection of memories