Good literature is always universal. My Heart is Semezdin Mehmedinović’s new novel published in English and translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth. My Heart is an autobiographical account that reflects the polyhedral nature of America, and one of its infinite faces. Mehmedinović switches back and forward between the years of his exile in Washington D.C. (where he also worked as journalist) and his life back in Sarajevo during and before the war. He has that unique talent of swinging harmoniously between those worlds permeated by pain and melancholy. It is a pleasure to discover his brilliant thoughts in every attempt to comprehend and amalgamate that capsized and ruptured world in the same paragraph.
My Heart is an engaging journey that transverses uncountable topics, and one would relate to Mehmedinović’s experience in every sentence. That is the essence of his writing. He’s the author of Sarajevo Blues (1995, published in English in 1998), a collection of poems and vignettes is considered the most outstanding contribution to the Bosnian literature on the war. In the introduction, Bosnian American writer, Aleksandar Hemon praised Hawkesworth’s translation and remarked that Mehmedinović is his favorite Bosnian writer and therefore his favorite living writer. He guaranteed a safe space for us since Mehmedinović is capable of structuring with poetic and compassionate language that lands our minds over harrowing scenarios: the violent extinction of the homeland. He possesses that rare and most appreciated quality of conveying a deep serenity to the reader.
My Heart is a family triptych. In the opening scene we see Me’med feeling terribly ill at home. He is taken to the hospital in an ambulance, where a young nurse delivers the news to him that he is having a heart attack at the age of fifty. Nevertheless he leads us to focus on the blueness of the young nurse’s suit.
In the second chapter, Me’med, embarks with his son Harun on a tour across the American deserts. Harun is a patient hunter of stars on his path to become a successful photographer. My Heart indulges us in a constant collage of images: skies packed with stars that fall regularly in one night, yet that sublime image comes intertwined with an apocalyptic scene: Sarajevo was cursed with ongoing blackouts, and a writer had to burn oil in a lamp to keep writing. In the morning after, Me’med, Sanja—his wife—and Harun wake to realize that “[b]lack oily soot from the lamp had settled on everything. It was an image of pure horror. As though [they’d] woken up in a different world.”
Also, inexorable rifts emerge between Harun, the boy who arrived in the United States at the age of thirteen and assimilated fast, and the father, whom the war expelled from his homeland carrying a heavy baggage of memories, both loving and extremely painful. Inevitably the son becomes the guide and the father the guided one. There is unavoidable sorrow in the process; father and son need an intermediary to embark into a conversation about the war days in Sarajevo, to cross bridges of pain nobody wants to cross.
The third part is about Sanja, who suffers from a stroke which affects her memory. Undeniably, that event represents another huge challenge to confront together as a couple: first the war and the siege, then their exile in America and their forced uprooting; finally, within the years, those experiences were resented by the physical body. He describes a closeness that even for a gifted writer, escapes his own mastery of language: “She is my wife, that is a simplification, she is more than that…in Sarajevo a murderer pointed the barrel of a Kalashnikov at my chest. And she stepped between the gun and me.”
Mehmedinović’s world is a vast landscape inhabited by the sharp notion of memory and identity, that indomitable memory that pushes up from the debris left by the dark days; by the notion of a relentless identity that does not want to surrender and forget. He is the bewildered immigrant, as he called himself. The past lurks constantly in the quotidian life, but he looks for solace in the hectic coffee shops of a DC airport daydreaming of taking a flight himself, or in the notes inside a jazz bar.
The world is beautiful and an absurd place at the same time and Mehmedinović gives sense to that absurdity and adversity in every sentence of his writing. In My Heart there is a philosopher who likes to play with the illogical and questions the world to the upmost and outmost: the best photograph is the one that has not been taken, a writer who acknowledges his infidelity toward his wife relies on his own writing, writers who let books get soaked in the rain: “A Book with a vanished story, an anthology with a vanished article”.
Aleksandar Hemon’s work of nonfiction like The Story Of My Lives or This Does Not Belong to You/My Parents: An Introduction also explores the Bosnian exile in North America; Hemon writes in English; he married an American woman and their children were born in America. Mehmedinović’s pain feels more fluid in his writing, less analytical than Hemon’s, nevertheless Hemon’s writing is a must read in the immigrant’s literature precisely because he offers through his magisterial pen a rationalized world that once was nebulous, a world of shadows as a political exiled in Chicago. Mehmedinović raises the questions and somehow Hemon answers them. Mehmedinović refuses to write literature in English. As a Spanish speaker, I cannot help but reflect on my own survival in America, which never relied on the acquisition of a new language, whereas for Bosnian immigrants, it is vital; therefore, the relationship with the native language becomes more intense, dramatic, and meaningful.
My Heart is a truly universal book that would connect us to the most intimate part of our own hearts and brains. I was born in Mexico, and I encountered that intimacy in the border-crossing of the monarch butterflies, in tres leches cake, (and its similarity with Bosnian desert patispanja), Mehmedinović’s praise of Mexican writer Sergio Pitol and his brilliant essay on Venice invigorated me to follow Pitol’s steps myself.
Publication Date: March 9, 2021
Reviewed by Florencia Ruiz Mendoza