The World and All That It Holds by Aleksandar Hemon book review


“The World and All That Is” would be a bold title for a book by anyone but God or Alexander Haemon. But this Bosnian American writer will make you a believer.

Born in Sarajevo, Hemon has lived in the United States since the 1992 war devastated his homeland. Writing in English—his adopted language—he attracted critical acclaim but not the popular audience he deserved. In 2004, he won a MacArthur “genius” grant, and in 2008, his novel The Lazarus Project was a finalist for the National Book Award. Comparisons with Nabokov are not surprising.

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Hemon’s charismatic new novel spans the world and, yes, everything, across Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century. It’s the story of humanity’s most cataclysmic era, but the future has been removed from the historical headlines to instead embrace ordinary souls freed from their crumbling countries and sent to roam the globe.

It sounds awful, and I know there’s plenty of horror in these flaming pages, but The World and the Things It Holds’ unrelenting voice is a poignant pillow laced with wry humor. From beginning to end, whatever else he does, Haemon tells a tale about the resilience of true love.

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The novel begins with its book of Genesis: “The saint was creating worlds and destroying them, creating worlds and destroying them, and then, on the verge of giving up, he finally came up with this. And it could be worse.”

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The protagonist, Rafael Pinto, is a poet and an apothecary—equally effective professions in 1914. Pinto studied in Vienna and lives in Sarajevo. Even though he is Jewish and homosexual, he has no reason to worry. After all, the air is full of optimism. “We now lived in a brand new century,” writes Hemon, “everywhere progress was visible, the future was as boundless as the sea – no one could see its end.”

In fact, Pinto is ready to see the end of it. While she is dreaming of meeting the mounted officer, here comes a beautiful carriage carrying the Archduke Ferdinand. A brief scuffle ensued involving an officer, an accordion player and a guy with a gun. It would be scandalous if the consequences weren’t so dire. Pinto finds the Archduke nearby, choking on his own blood.

The assassination was “a moment that split the world in two, before and after, except in a heartbeat.” Within weeks, Pinto and tens of thousands of other Bosnians would be conscripted into the Imperial Army and sent to die in the trenches in defense of the inherited political order.

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And so begins the picaresque journey of this deeply lovable, often frustrated man who, even as he sinks into opium and despair, does what he can to heal others. “God is always the same, but people must change, and they will eventually change from the living to the dead,” sighs Pinto. “Why not die now? Why do you keep going?”

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He finds the answer to this existential challenge in a Muslim soldier named Osman. Charming, funny and brave Osman Pinto is not all, but they instantly fall in love and passion – “in the trenches, in the woods, in the grass”. Although Osman is stunningly beautiful, her stories—part Isaac Bashevis Singer, part Anthony Marra—actually wake Pinto up and sustain him. Haemon writes: “He would pray to be freed from his abominable lust.” “But now the only wish that came to his mind was to pray to the Lord to save Osman for the rest of his life.”

As Pinto and Osman move from battle to battle, from atrocity to atrocity, one gritty, gonzo adventure ensues. A million soldiers died in the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, but “at that time,” notes Hemon, “no one or two of them, whose bodies were to be destroyed, and no one, had no name because it was necessary. no name, because it was just just happened.

From a Russian prison in Turkestan to a ghetto in Shanghai, “The World and Everything in It” runs through Pinto’s unquenchable thread of hope. Mad tyrants and elegant spies pass through the chapters of this epic with dazzling effect, but none captures our attention more than Pinto or Osman.

The endless invention of the plot is just one of the wonders of this novel. The second is Haemon’s mysterious narrator. He speaks from the future, but in these characters, especially Pinto, he reflects their desires and fears, a great collage of their disparate pasts, all with a shrug of acknowledgment that God will do with us what He wills.

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Each section is usefully dated, but the scenes show an intense feature in the center and a strange blur at the edges. Sometimes characters are introduced shortly after we meet them; events are explained only when we stop guessing. The artful, fluid structure that captures the historian’s collage of details and Pinto’s drug addiction is never jarring, periodically lifting him above the flow of time and occasionally knocking him down entirely. Consequently, the chronology shifts back and forth, and the narrative shifts to other years, to other points of view, and even, briefly, to other languages. (No wonder he co-wrote the screenplay for Keanu Reeves’ Matrix Resurrection with Hamon.)

“The past was somewhere else,” writes Hemon, “and the present has always been like this – masses of refugees roaming the city, looking for food and a place to somehow not die.” This is the grief of millions of generations. The real wonder of “The World and Those Who Live in It” is that despite having so much, we know so well the tender joys of this one sad man that it seems written into our past.

Ron Charles reviews and writes books Book Club Newsletter For the Washington Post.

The world and what is in it

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