Historians say that the “short” 20th century began in 1914 with the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That sparked World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel, The World and All That It Holds (MCD, Jan.), also begins with the assassination of the archduke, though in Hemon’s world, the murder is almost prevented by a man in the crowd watching the royal motorcade. He reaches for the assassin’s gun, only to be bumped aside by another bystander’s accordion.
Witnessing all of this is the novel’s protagonist, Rafael Pinto, a member of Sarajevo’s Sephardic Jewish community. Pinto is a Vienna-trained doctor and a kind man with a weak spot for opiates. Like the protagonists of Hemon’s earlier novels, and not unlike the author himself, Pinto is swept up by world events, forced by cycles of war to migrate farther and farther from the place and people he calls home.
“My people move through space, across borders,” Hemon, 58, says. “That’s part of my experience of who I am, of who everyone I know really is. We are migratory.”
Speaking from his office at Princeton University, where he teaches creative writing, Hemon is 4,500 miles away from Sarajevo, where he was born. He’s also relatively far from Chicago, where he wound up in 1992. He came to that city for a short visit that became a permanent relocation after the Bosnian War began. In Chicago, Hemon perfected his English and, in 2000, published his debut, a story collection titled The Question of Bruno, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
The fateful accordion makes its first appearance in The Question of Bruno. It’s identified as an article of family lore by a Sarajevan immigrant to Chicago who works as a parking assistant—a trajectory that partly overlaps with Hemon’s. In the novels and story collections that have followed, Hemon has continued a postmodern play with fiction and nonfiction—a binary that he points out doesn’t exist in other languages and literatures. In a 2009 interview in the New Yorker, Hemon referred to his stories as composed of “antibiographical” matter: “They are the antimatter to the matter of my life. They contain what did not happen to me.”
The question of lives not lived, alternate futures, and foreclosed possibilities also fascinates Pinto in The World and All That It Holds. Conscripted into the imperial army, Pinto falls in love with fellow soldier Osman. Osman is a Muslim, a charmer, a singer, and a storyteller who takes care of Pinto in the midst of carnage and destruction—as Hemon writes: “deep-grave clay, disintegrating socks, dead rodents, shit buckets, sickness, blood, men without home and water, the rich stench of the shallow trench.” Pinto dreams of a postwar life with Osman back in Sarajevo, and when the two men are separated, Osman’s voice becomes his constant companion.
When Hemon began working on the novel 12 years ago, he imagined Pinto and Osman as friends, but eventually realized, he says, “the value of their being lovers.” The realization came in the process of Hemon’s screenwriting work on the Netflix show Sense8 and the 2021 film The Matrix Resurrections. He collaborated on the film’s script with writer David Mitchell and director Lana Wachowski. As a screenwriter, Hemon came to understand “the necessity of things happening,” he says. “I’m a language freak—I could easily get caught up in generating language that I perceive as beautiful and meaningful.”
During the pandemic, Hemon says he found a way to get into his office even though the university was officially closed. As he worked on the novel in the middle of an emptied-out campus in “an abandoned town,” language was his companion. “There’s constant chatter in my head, unless I’m actually focusing on making something,” he explains.
Hemon says he endowed Pinto with a similarly chatty consciousness. Throughout the book, Pinto’s thoughts sound in several languages, “a mishmash of Spanjol, Bosnian, German, and a dozen other languages his mind had been infected with between Sarajevo and Shanghai,” where Pinto and his beloved daughter Rahela wind up in the 1920s, after a harrowing multi-year trek across Central Asia.
“I, obviously, am multilingual,” Hemon says, but trying to represent the interaction of languages he lives with is like “representing a multidimensional object in two-dimensional space. The possibilities, the dimensions, are reduced. And I wanted to retain that complex multilingual space. I do not speak Ladino, or German for that matter. In some ways, Pinto’s multilingual space is beyond even me.”
For Pinto’s Ladino vocabulary, Hemon consulted a rabbi from Sarajevo who was familiar with the city’s particular dialect. A friend fluent in both Bosnian and German, who could “understand the context of Pinto and where he is in society and his historical moment,” also lent a hand, Hemon says. Other characters contribute to the novel’s linguistic plurality, speaking Tajik, Russian, and Chinese; an English spy curses in French after Pinto performs surgery on him; a woman who appears in the novel’s metafictional epilogue is wearing anti-war badges in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
Hemon thinks the novel exposes the “notion of pure language” as a pernicious construct. “At some point languages, except the languages of people who are geographically isolated, were macaronic,” he says. “At some point the Normans came to England, and someone was combining two or three languages there, and now we have English. No language is just itself.”
Language is also what remains to people who lose access to their “home space, the group of people you belong to,” Hemon says. “What is there to have, other than that?”
The language that Pinto speaks with Osman, which Rahela comes to share, is unique to them—the private language of a family unit that for Hemon is ultimately the crux of the book. Writing about his own father in his nonfiction collection The Book of My Lives, he mused that “perhaps love is a process of finding a common vision of reality.”
“At no point,” Hemon says, “other than the very beginning, where it falls apart, are the characters in a functioning society. It’s unstable, chaotic circumstances, where no stable social category, like a family, can last. How do you love in those circumstances?” Citing Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, he suggests that some propose that love becomes impossible “in a world that’s constantly renewing itself in violence.”
“But I can’t accept that, humanly or artistically,” Hemon says, “although I admire Blood Meridian greatly.” As the pandemic shut down the world, initiating a new historical era, Hemon continued writing and making music. “It was necessary for me to think that at the other end of this there will be people who will engage with it,” he says. He collaborated with a musician friend on an upcoming album of sevdah, traditional Bosnian music, containing songs Osman sings to Pinto, and now looks forward to joint performances.
“I would never describe myself as an optimist,” Hemon says. “But making art was the only thing I could do. Whatever is ahead of us, we’re going to have to figure out how to live and love in those circumstances. It’s not going to be the same. It’s already not the same as it was before.”
Vera Kean is a writer living in New York.