#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews MY PARENTS: AN INTRODUCTION and THIS DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU by Aleksandar Hemon

Towards the end of My Parents – one part of this one-volume, two-book memoir – Hemon shows his sister the drafts of this history of their parents’ life together. She notes that ‘more text is devoted to our father than to our mother, reproducing, she fears, the structures of patriarchy within which our parents came of age’. Hemon ‘readily concede[s] her point’. But the final manuscript still focuses more on Tata, whose ebullience and thirst for life, work and fellowship dominates each reminiscence. This is a shame, in my view, as, while Tata is entertaining, the story of Mama, whose ‘nineteenth-century’ childhood was transformed by Tito’s Yugoslavia, is far more interesting. ‘Mama’s future was entangled with Yugoslavia’s, enabling her to leave behind the poverty that had lasted centuries.’ Joining a ‘voluntary youth action’ group, she helped construct a road between Belgrade and Niš: ‘She built the country as she was building herself.’ 

When Yugoslavia disintegrates, Petar and Andja Hemon manage to escape to Canada. But for Andja, the loss of her homeland is particularly painful. And despite making a comfortable life in Ontario, she never quite recovers. She hasn’t just left a place behind; the place she was instrumental in creating no longer exists. 

There is another character who takes a peripheral role in My Parents: Hemon himself. While acknowledging this was a book about his parents, I did find myself wondering why he didn’t feature more in the tales of the Hemons’ life in Yugoslavia. It seems, however, that he’d saved himself for the other book in this volume: This Does Not Belong to You. Here he adopts an entirely different register. Where My Parents is documentary, This Does Not Belong to You is both impressionistic and philosophical. Many of the same incidents appear in both books, but in the latter they are rendered poetically, and serve as material through which Hemon explores the nature and meaning of memory – and by extension his understanding of his own identity and existence. 

With Hemon, however, there is always more. A text is never a story, a character study, a history, a document. Having completed This Does Not Belong to You, and wondered, as I always do when reading Hemon, at his ability to write so authentically in a language that is not his mother tongue, I realised that he is, of course, continuously present in the first book of this work – and not only as its author. The story of his parents’ life in a Yugoslavia that is born and dies within their lifetimes, and their creation of a new life in an English-speaking country, reflects Hemon’s own history. 

This Does Not Belong to You doesn’t explore this idea explicitly – and perhaps Hemon had no intention to lead the reader in this direction – but for me it pointed me back to My Parents, and a rereading of that book as something more than a straightforward account of the Hemons’ lives. My Parents and This Does Not Belong to You, haven’t been published separately, and nor should they. For this is one work, whose author and hero are Hemon himself.

Reviewed by West Camel




Written by Aleksandar Hemon

Published by Picador (2019)

West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now. www.westcamel.net.

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Category: ReviewsJanuary 2020


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