“We spend a lot of time remembering the past, that’s how we check how much of everything we’ve forgotten” declares Sem, the narrator of Bosnian author Semezdin Mehmedinović’s autobiographical novel My Heart. “We keep making lists, remembering important books, songs, or films.” Sem is trying to help his wife Selma to reassemble the memories she has lost as a result of a stroke, coaxing out their collective recollections in order to help her get better.
First published in Croatia to great acclaim in 2017 (the original title is Me’med, Crvena Bandana i Pahuljica, or Me’med, Red Bandana and Snowflake), My Heart is a compelling rumination on mortality, memory, and the things that make up a human life. The book covers three key stages in Sem’s recent history: a heart attack at the age of 50; a road trip across the American West undertaken with his grown-up photographer son Harun; and the aforementioned ordeal of his wife’s stroke and her gradual recovery.
The three tales are told in a confiding, engagingly chatty style, a tone captured with customary aplomb by translator Celia Hawkesworth. But Sem’s deceptively light, almost bemused response to these life events disguises a profound search for meaning and identity, one that brings a rich trove of epiphanies and insights. The fact that the author, together with wife and son, lived through the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo before emigrating to the United States, provides an added measure of reflection on the nature of exile and the intangibility of something called home.
“Balkan history is, in a way, a constant fight between memory and forgetting.”
“I think I was obsessed with memory and forgetting right from my first writings,” says Semezdin Mehmedinović, now based back in Sarajevo after almost 25 years in the United States. “Probably it’s got something to do with the culture I am from. I was in Sarajevo during the siege. I remember the City Library and the Oriental Institute being destroyed. Those places were the most important archives of the city, and the attack on them was intended to destroy the city’s memory. Balkan history is, in a way, a constant fight between memory and forgetting. “
Born in Kiseljak near the Bosnian city of Tuzla in 1960, Mehmedinović studied literature in Sarajevo before emerging as a journalist, poet, filmmaker, and bookseller in a city that was, in the 1980s, home to a dazzling generation of multi-tasking cultural talents. His first book, Sarajevo Blues (1992; English version 1998) mixed poetry, essay, and short story to produce the hybrid form of autofiction that he has been practicing ever since. Each of Mehmedinović’s books amounts to a retelling of his life, based on recent events and the memories they trigger. And despite their at times fragmentary nature, they retain a powerful sense of narrative propulsion. My Heart, as his other books, is illustrated with several of Mehmedinović’s own drawings, which serve as a parallel record of the personal narratives he is trying to nail down.
As with all works of autofiction, the question of how much is autobiography and how much is poetic license is never far from the reader’s mind. So, is the “Sem” who appears in Mehmedinović’s books quite the same person as the Semezdin who wrote it? “That voice is ‘Sem’ but not completely ‘Semezdin,’” Mehmedinović tells me. “For me it is important to tell a story that has value as literature. I make selections from things that happened, and that selection is fictionalising my reality. Besides, there is something attractive about being a writer and a character at the same time.” The habit of autobiographical note-taking is something that Mehmedinović picked up during the siege of Sarajevo. “I did that to distance myself from tragic reality. It was the way to treat my own reality as if it was happening to somebody else.
“In my most recent book, Ovo Vrijeme Sada (This Time Now; published by Fraktura in Zagreb 2020, that contains much that harks back to Mehmedinović’s formative years in the Sarajevo of the 80s), I wrote about events that I had difficulty in writing about before. Then I realised that if I change just one name, or if I change the location, the story comes out much more easily.”
“There is something attractive about being a writer and a character at the same.”
A key work in the Mehmedinović canon (and one that cries out for English translation) is Ruski Kompjuter (Russian Computer; 2011), a book that came about when the author re-discovered some long-forgotten autobiographical prose sketches he’d stored on floppy disks. He was amazed by the encounter with his former self. Dating from the time he left Sarajevo and emigrated, the book gets to the heart of what it is really like to cross one’s personal Rubicon, turn one’s back on home, move to a different continent, and become another person in another context.
The road-trip section of My Heart is a particularly moving account of a man’s relationship with his adopted country, and bearing in mind Mehmedinović’s subsequent return to Sarajevo, it has the elegiac quality of a farewell trip. He revels in the desert landscapes of Arizona, its motels and the gas stations, and at one point comes across what might be the ultimate metaphor for the psychological landscapes of the American interior: an isolated drive-in cinema for camper-vans.
“When I arrived in the United States, the most attractive thing for me was the vastness of the continent,” he says. “I had just spent four years living under siege in Sarajevo. Movement was limited, the shrinking of space was a problem; it was natural that after all that time I felt a longing for open space. I drove several times from coast to coast and, after Sarajevo, that gave me a feeling of great freedom. And the beauty of the American landscape is a story in itself. But above all that, there was, and still is, my fascination with American culture, which in my imagination formed that kind of ‘mythical America’ that is different from the one I lived and worked in. It was a great honour for me to have two of my books published by City Lights, the San Francisco bookshop and publishing house run by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the great American poet who left us in February. He represented an America that is both loved and mythologised with good reason.”
One nevertheless gets the feeling that the longer that Sem stays in America, the less and less American he feels. The America that seems so ready to accept newcomers can also alienate those why try to make it home. Had Mehmedinović always planned to move back to Sarajevo, or was he forced to by changes in America itself? “My initial intention was to return to Sarajevo after a few years,” he answers. “I wanted to give my family time to recover. However, life is not that simple. It was easier to leave Sarajevo than to go back. Dramatic changes in the United States did push me towards returning to Bosnia. I worked in Washington D.C. as a TV producer. I had to listen to [former-President Donald] Trump’s speeches on a daily basis. That was, simply put, too much.“
At one point in My Heart, Sem tells us that, “I imagined that in my 50s I would live a peaceful life, with time freed up just for writing. I wanted a small shady café where I would meet with friends on a Saturday or Sunday morning to gossip about our past.” I asked Mehmedinović whether he had actually found this peace now that he was back “home”. “I haven’t found it in Sarajevo. But I do have all my time for writing. I am 60-years-old, and now, interestingly, in my life, literature and writing have become more relevant. But there is something obvious about exile: once you start moving, you can’t stop. And in the process, we lose the idea of home. What is my home? I am not sure anymore. Two years ago, we returned to Sarajevo. But after all these years, I can’t say that I returned to my home. Because I think it is not possible anymore. In a way, I feel like I am in my new exile.”
My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinović (trans. Celia Hawkesworth) is published by Catapult.