“The World and All In It” would be a bold title for a book by anyone but God – or Aleksandar Hemon. But this Bosnian American author will make you a believer.
Born in Sarajevo, Hemon has lived in the United States since the 1992 war decimated his homeland. Writing in English—his adopted language—he has attracted an adoring critical following but not the popular audience he deserves. In 2004, he won a MacArthur “genius” grant and his 2008 novel, “The Lazarus Project,” was a finalist for a National Book Award. The comparisons with Nabokov are not extravagant.
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Hemon’s charismatic new novel weaves its way across Europe and Asia during the first half of the 20th century, embracing the world and, yes, all in it. This is the story of mankind’s most cataclysmic era, but the perspective has been moved away from historical titles to instead embrace those common souls released from their disintegrating countries and sent to wander the world.
It sounds awfully dark, I know, and there’s a lot of horror in these fiery pages, but the irrepressible voice of “The World and All That It Holds” glides along a cushion of intensity underpinned by wry humor. From start to finish, no matter what else he’s doing, Hemon tells a story about the resilience of true love.
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The novel opens with his Genesis: “The Saint continued to create worlds and destroy them, to create worlds and destroy them, and then, just before giving up, he finally invented this. And it could be much worse.
The protagonist is Rafael Pinto, poet and pharmacist, equally effective professions in 1914. Pinto was trained in Vienna and lives in Sarajevo. Even as a Jew and a homosexual, he has little reason to be concerned. After all, the air is filled with optimism. “We were now living in a brand new century,” writes Hemon, “progress was everywhere to be seen, the future was infinite, like a sea – no one could see its end.”
Indeed, Pinto is on hand to see the end of it. While he is daydreaming about an appointment with a cavalry officer, a luxury car arrives carrying the Archduke Ferdinand. There is a brief scuffle involving an officer, an accordion player and a young man with a pistol. It would be a slap in the face if the repercussions weren’t so dire. Pinto is close enough to see the Archduke choke on his own blood.
That assassination was “the exact moment, no longer than the one that passes between heartbeats, which broke the world in two, in the before and in the after”. Within weeks, Pinto and tens of thousands of other Bosnians are drafted into the Imperial Army and sent to die in the trenches defending a hereditary political order that is already gone.
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Thus begins the picaresque journey of this deeply endearing, often frustrating man who does his best to heal others even as he feeds his own despair on opium. “God is still the same, yet people have to change, and eventually they all change from alive to dead,” sighs Pinto. “Why not die now? Why continue?”
The answer he finds to that existential challenge is a Muslim soldier named Osman. Gregarious, funny and courageous, Osman is everything Pinto is not, but they fall in love and are instantly in love: “in a trench, in the woods, on a haystack”. While Osman is strikingly handsome, the stories of him—part Isaac Bashevis Singer, part Anthony Marra—are really what excite Pinto and sustain him. He allegedly “prayed to be relieved of his aberrant passion,” Hemon writes. “But the only prayer that came to his mind now was to the Lord to let him keep Osman the rest of the time.”
One harrowing, gonzo adventure comes after another as Pinto and Osman find themselves drawn from one battle to another, from atrocity to atrocity. In the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, a million soldiers die, but “back then,” notes Hemon, “the two of them, or any of the nobodies whose bodies were to be destroyed, didn’t have a name for it, because it was needed no name as it was simply what it was.
From a Russian prison in Turkestan to a ghetto in Shanghai, “The World and All That It Holds” runs along the thread of Pinto’s tenuous hope. Mad tyrants and elegant spies traverse the chapters of this epic with dazzling effect, but no one can really take their eyes off Pinto or his eyes off Osman.
The inexhaustible invention of the plot is just one of the wonders of this novel. The other is the mysterious narrator of Hemon. It speaks from the future but it resides embodied in these characters, especially Pinto, capturing with perfect fidelity their longings and fears, the grand collage of their disparate pasts, all interwoven with the shrugging acknowledgment that God will do it all who wants with us.
Each chapter is helpfully dated, but the scenes demonstrate an odd mix of intense specificity at the core and alluring blurring around the edges. Characters are sometimes introduced long after we’ve met them; events are explained only when we have stopped guessing. Without ever becoming whimsical, it’s a deftly flowing structure that manages to reflect a historian’s collage of details and Pinto’s addiction to narcotics, which periodically elevates him above the flow of time and sometimes knocks him outright. As a result, the chronology scrolls back and forth, as the narrative slips into other years, other perspectives, even, briefly, other languages. (It’s certainly no coincidence that Hemon co-wrote the screenplay for “The Matrix Resurrections,” with Keanu Reeves.)
“The past was elsewhere,” writes Hemon, “the present was always this: the masses of refugees moving through the city in search of food and a place, somehow not to die.” This has been the situation of countless millions for generations. The real miracle of “The World and All That It Holds” is that despite it holding so much, we come to know so well the fragile joys of this melancholy man who feels written in our own past.
Ron Carlo reviews books and writes the Book Club Bulletin for the Washington Post.
The world and everything in it
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