Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel is immense. Not because it is inordinately long – it isn’t – but because it contains almost as much as its title promises: journeys that take years, and lives that span continents; falling empires and storied cities; so many wars they blur and merge in the characters’ memories; indelible loves, unbearable losses; dreams and songs and megalomaniac delusions; witty allusions, rude jokes. By turns lyrical and sardonic, it is as emotionally compelling as it is clever. I’ll be surprised if I enjoy a novel more this year.
It begins in Sarajevo. Hemon, a Bosnian now living in the US, has written in several genres about the 1990s siege of that city. This book, though, takes us back to 1914, when it was the setting for the assassination that triggered the first world war. Our witness is Rafael Pinto: Sephardic-Jewish, Vienna-educated, pharmacist, homosexual, opium-user. As Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife drive into town, Pinto is in his shop, planting a kiss on the moustachioed lips of an Austrian Rittmeister. It’s an audacious act, but this is Sarajevo, a polyglot, multifaith city, and unorthodox conjunctions are worth daring. Until “the Holy One” – the being who “repeatedly creates worlds and destroys them” – puts an end to the world in which Pinto grew up and sends him off on foot all the way across the Eurasian landmass, eventually bringing him, 35 years later, to Shanghai, and to a plangent Liebestod.
In the last paragraph I used two German words. No apology: Hemon’s readers have to accept unfamiliar vocabulary. This wandering epic of a novel is bound together by recurring motifs. Anecdotes, scraps of poetry and philosophical saws crop up repeatedly, sometimes as simple reprises, sometimes as ironic variations. One of those motifs is the story of Babel. This is a book about language, and its medium is a rich linguistic stew.
Hemon (like Conrad, like Nabokov) first learned English as an adult, and he is attentive to the way words and concepts interact. Into his text he drops tags from more languages than a reader can be expected to know – sometimes translated, sometimes not. Pinto grows up speaking Bosnian, German and Turkish as well as Spanjol (the version of Spanish that his family speaks at home). As a boy he wonders at the oddity of a familiar thing such as a stork having so many different names. Later, after he has been travelling for years with a small child, he realises that the language the two of them speak, a mishmash of all the territories they have passed through, is theirs and theirs alone. Language binds; it also excludes.
The child, Rahela, is Pinto’s by right of devotion, but biologically she is the daughter of the man Pinto loves – Osman, a Muslim whom he meets when both men are drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and sent east to fight the Russians. Partway through their wanderings Osman goes missing as a flesh-and-blood person, but remains in the story as a voice, a ghost, a narrative device, a guardian angel. This is a historical novel, but one in which fact mingles with the fabulous. A shadow detaches itself from the person who casts it. There is a carp who prophesises pogroms in fluent Hebrew. When Pinto has been smoking opium, the narrative becomes muzzy and phantasmagorical. Religion matters. Miracles occur. Sacred texts of many denominations echo throughout the story. The “Holy One” looms large, because he is everywhere or – more frighteningly – because he is nowhere at all.
Mostly we are with Pinto – sensitive, poetic, uncomplaining even when fate is bludgeoning him unmercifully. Sometimes, though, a very different narrative voice enters. Major Moser-Etherington, or “Sparky”, is a British secret agent. Like John Buchan’s Sandy Arbuthnot, he has a knack for disappearing, and then popping up again thousands of miles away in an entirely different persona. The Major has written many self-mythologising memoirs. He is a veteran of the Great Game, the conflict between Russian and British imperialists for south Asia, and even though the Bolsheviks have radically altered the game’s rules, he is still active. An enthusiastic huntsman, he kills easily. As romantic as he is ruthless, he tells yarns about 20th-century conflicts in language borrowed from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Hemon’s prose, delicate and discursive when he is writing from Pinto’s point of view, takes on a terrific full-throttled gusto when he adopts Moser’s.
There is a third voice. Someone from our own era speaks occasionally. After Pinto has walked across mountains and deserts with little Rahela on his back, enduring Cossacks’ attacks and sandstorms, after he has survived a Sino-Japanese war and the onslaught of Chinese communists, even after his own ending, the novel concludes with an epilogue set in 2001, a week before 9/11.
A first-person narrator reveals himself. He is an author. Perhaps he is Hemon himself. He is in Jerusalem for a literary festival. He meets people who were in Sarajevo during the siege. A frail old woman sings to him in Bosnian. She is Rahela. She tells him the story of her two fathers. And so, as we finish reading this magnificent novel, the author is given the idea of writing it.
I didn’t like this ending. It is a little pat, a little too modishly autofictional. But my unhappiness with it is a compliment to Hemon. The historical-fictional illusion he has created is so engrossing, so generous in the abundant pleasures it offers the reader, that being yanked out of it cannot but hurt.