Food, Memory and Loss in the Works of Aleksandar Hemon by Ann Henry

In the middle of Catastrophe, the Hemons managed to scrounge up some makeshift joy.  Aleksander Hemon, “Sound and Vision”

Aleksandar Hemon, a young Bosnian journalist, found himself in accidental exile in 1992, having accepted a fellowship in the U.S. just as the war broke out. Cut off from his beloved Sarajevo, he had to reinvent himself as a writer in a different language, and as a person in a different context. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius grant,” and the PEN/ W.G. Sebald Award. His fiction is and is not autobiographical, so that it is easy to slip and call his narrators “Hemon.”  Though details may be shifted, arranged, and wholly invented, the central persona of his fiction and essays always remains himself.

            His tragicomic flights of language often reference his memories of home, a love poem to a lost Sarajevo. He is enamoured of the vibrant, sensual surfaces of life, and he uses narrative as a way of “making up the losses.” Hemon’s nostalgia is often passionately gustatory, from his mother’s feasts, detailed in essays such as “Family Dining” and stories such as “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” the peasant simplicity of borscht, and the meals at a favorite Ascinica (an informal restaurant in which food is cooked rather than roasted or baked, where “everyone is equal before a shallow stainless steel bowl.” He evokes the essence of Bosnian cuisine:  “Unsophisticated dishes designed for ever hungry people, of the loss that flickered in everything we did or did not do.”[1]

 Good food, in Hemon’s homes of Bosnia and Chicago, represents family, cultural identity, survival, abundance, continuity, and love. In his descriptions of bad food, army chow, American fast food, etc., the opposite is evoked: scarcity, rootlessness, and alienation.

Bosnia, even before the war, was the poorest of the Yugoslav Republics, a land of long harsh winters and limited arable land, thus hardship created the cultural preoccupation with abundance, and inclusivity. The hardship was not only a result of terrain and climate: the blending and adaptation of multiple culinary traditions was the result of multiple invasions and colonizations.  Bosnian dining might be compared to what is said to be the essential root of all Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us; we’re still here; let’s eat. The eating habits of the rural poor and the urban middle class did not differ markedly in Bosnia: a mélange of Turkish and Central European food traditions, with an emphasis on hearty simplicity. The Sarajevo office worker needed the same physical and spiritual sustenance as the rural farmer.

For holiday and weekend meals, the main meal, rucak, begins in the afternoon and ends when the last guest, stupefied with repletion, “descends from the mountains of meat to the lowlands of sleep.”[2]

There is little conversation at a Bosnian table; eating is serious business. “We ate in silence, as though the meal were a job to be done,” [3] the narrator of “The Noble Truths of Suffering” tells a teetotalling vegan American guest.

Simpler, work week meals are frequently a large soup or stew, which Hemon lovingly describes in his essay “Family Dining,” detailing his family “recipe” for borscht, a food tradition they imported from Ukraine. There is, of course, no real recipe-it is “a song you learn by singing it, containing whatever vegetables were available in the garden at the time,” meat, vinegar, dill, and of course beets. The amounts and proportions change, “just as a song and a singer” it is, writes Hemon, “…poor people’s food. It was designed-if indeed it ever was designed, not to delight the sophisticated senses but to insure survival… a perfect borscht is a utopian dish: ideally, it contains everything: it is produced and consumed collectively: ” …a perfect borscht is what life should be and never is.” [4]

Hemon’s attempt to make “solitary borscht” for himself in Chicago was a failure.  It must be “consumed in a ritual of indelible togetherness. “The crucial ingredient of the perfect borscht is a large, hungry family.” (Note that in Bosnia, “family” is often expanded from nuclear, to extended, to whoever stops by at mealtimes.)

In The Lazarus Project, Hemon’s narrator opens by detailing his double life as a ‘reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries”[5] who loyally celebrates Bosnian Independence Day in Chicago with a “ceremonious dinner” on February 28. (Bosnian Independence Day actually falls on February 29, but one ceremonious dinner every four years seems stingy.)  It is the one day a year he and his fellow Bosnians feel “solidly Bosnian.” Driven by “poor people’s affliction that plenty never seems enough for all” they “…make disparaging remarks about the food, which they then turn into contemptuous contemplation of American obesity,” indignantly explaining to the uncomprehending wait staff that Bosnians “…eat their salad with the main dish, not before it.”[6] “And pretty soon whatever meagre Americaness has been accrued in the past decade or so entirely evaporates for the night…everybody has an instructive story about cultural differences between them and us.”[7]

 In his essay “Who is That?” Hemon describes his parents and sister arriving in Hamilton, Ontario as refugees, and his sister finding a job at what she termed “Taco Hell.” His parents began “…cataloguing the differences between us and them,” and the essential difference being, of course food. “…We like to simmer our food for a long time, while they just dip it in extremely hot oil and cook it in a blink. Our simmering proclivities were reflective of our love of eating and, by extension and obviously, of our love of life.” [8]  That his  “life loving” country is embroiled in a vicious civil war that drove his family into exile to peaceable,  “Soulless” Canada is an irony not lost on Hemon. Identity, for a Sarajevan, is also geographic-

In Sarajevo, one possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher; the streets where people recognized you, the space that identified you; because anonymity is well nigh impossible and privacy incomprehensible, (there is no word for privacy in Bosnian) your fellow Sarajevans knew you as well as you knew them…your sense of who you were, your deepest identity, was determined by your position in a human network, whose physical collar was the architecture of the city.  [9]

            This sense of self as prototypical Sarajevan, (and thus forever hungry) is manifested in his description of his favorite Asnicia, Hadzizbarjrics, and is the subject of one of his first published writings. “One of the urban legends about the Hadzbajarics claimed that, back in the seventies, during the shooting of The Battle of Sutjeska, a state-produced world war two spectacle starring Richard Burton as Tito, a Yugoslav People’s Army helicopter was frequently deployed to the set deep in the mountains of eastern Bosnia, to transport Hadzizbajrics’ buredzici (meat pies in sour cream) for Elizabeth Taylor’s gastronomic enjoyment.” [10]

Hadzibajric’s represents, to Hemon, food infused with what can only be described as Bosnian love of continuity. It has been owned by the same family for eight generations, “…the secrets of preparation have been passed on from generation to generation, until the dishes have been so perfected that it’s hard to imagine how they could get any better.”  Whether, as Hemon writes, Hadzbajaric’s supplied “some of the fat in Purple Eyes’ ass,” the restaurant served both royalty (King Juan Carlos) and neighbourhood workers with inexpensive, lovingly prepared food. Its cooking fires, he writes, is what “warms my heart when I return home.” [11]

Prior to the latest catastrophe, most Bosnians sense of identity was not based on “ethnicity,” but on what Hemon calls the raja-a Sarajevan child’s gang. The family, of course, is everyone’s primary raja, and food evokes in Hemon powerful memories of parental love, most notably in the essay “Family Dining.” 

In “Stairway to Heaven,” the narrator’s dangerous adolescent rebellion (fueled by a drug addled madman named Spinelli) is quelled, and fear consoled by “…my sister picking the green beans off father’s plate; father slicing his steak, still wearing his pith helmet despite mother’s nagging; mother parting the mashed potato and carrots on sister’s plate because Sister never wanted them to touch.” [12] The quotidian comfort of family life, for Hemon, is love manifested by food. The opposite of Spinelli’s cynicism and lies is the simple truth of familial love.

The story “Everything” concerns the seventeen year old’s comic foray into adulthood, traveling alone and staying overnight in a hotel to buy his family a freezer: His father informs him that “The well being of our family requires new investments…abundance requires more storage.[13] His parents thought the errand would teach him “banal, quotidian” responsibilities. “They wanted me to join the great community of people who made food collection and storage the central organizing principle of their life.” [14] The narrator, who responds to his parents’ inquiries about his future with quotes from Rimbaud, is more inclined to view the errand as a possibility for sexual debauchery, to which end he has obtained a single contraceptive pill. He encounters frightening Serbian convicts on the train, and forgets about his mother’s lovingly prepared chicken and pepper sandwich. He considers simply forgetting about the freezer and absconding with the money, traveling aimlessly forever.

In Murska Subota, his destination, he gets drunk with a crazed stranger in a bar, gives his spending money to a kindly waitress, stalks two women, and awkwardly propositions a married American tourist at his hotel, only to be beaten up by Franc, the hotel receptionist. Only then does he remember his chicken sandwich, which had gone “mushy and stale.” The narrator dutifully buys the freezer. Without money for food, he relives the beauty of Mom’s chicken sandwich. He returns home, where breakfast, of course, is waiting.  Hemon’s black comedy keeps the story from bathos. Food serves as a metaphor for family, safety, and abundance; the freezer arrives and is “filled to the brim with “veal and pork, lamb and beef, chicken and peppers.” [15] to feed the ever expanding circle of family and friends.  Hemon, whose funniest works are imbued with tragedy, notes, “When the war began in spring of 1992, and electricity in the city of Sarajevo was cut, everything in the freezer chest thawed, rotted in less than a week, and then finally perished.”[16] Abundance, communion, and love are, in Hemon’s world, fragile, evanescent, and contingent, unless recreated in memory and language. 

In “Sound and Vision,” he writes of an ill-fated family migration-enroute to his father’s new post in Zaire, the family’s travel funds are robbed in Rome. His mother, preparer of feasts and woman of great resourcefulness, takes charge of the situation and sells her gold necklace.  The family takes a walk on the Lido: “…the Hemons leisurely strolled along the Lido, as if on vacation, the parents holding hands as if in love, the children licking gelato paid for with the family gold.” [17]

Hemon writes of the immigrant experience of alienation, often using food as a metaphor. In “Blind Jozef Pronek and the Dead Souls” he describes working briefly on the graveyard shift at White Castle, “…stealing the small burgers and taking them home to eat them cold, his pockets reeking of rotting processed meat and dissolving minced onion.” [18] His other experiences as a Food Service employee, images of American consumption juxtaposed with images of Sarajevan suffering and starvation, are equally infelicitous he is fired from a Mexican restaurant for dropping a pitcher of  “…sky blue Margaritas into the lap of a local cop…” [19] He works at Boudin Bakery, a pretentious faux French chain that requires him to wear a beret, “…manically filling up the bins with eviscerated bread bowls, shrivelled croissants, jagged watermelon slices, salad tidbits, slimy non-fat yogurt, jumbo gumbo slough” until he is fired for refusing to show proper deference and sympathy to a customer disgruntled by the presence of iceberg rather than romaine lettuce on his turkey Dijon croissant. “Romaine, iceberg, what’s the difference?”[20]

 The hero manifests his anxiety over the fate of his fellow Sarajevans by “…devouring Snickers, and Baby Ruths and Cheetos and Doritos and burritos and everything he could put into his mouth, so he gained thirty flabby pounds.” [21]

The protagonist of The Lazarus Project, the more acculturated Vladimir Brik, and encounters the globalized alienation of MC Donald’s in Chisinau, Moldova, the building “ …shiny and sovereign and structurally optimistic.”  As he consumes his Big Mac, Large Fries, and Coke, he reflects that “This is no comfort food; it was food that implied that there had been and never would be any need for comfort.” [22]

Hemon’s “mildly troubled” adolescence is evoked again in his essay “Family Dining.” He describes the banality of the family meal.  Rucak was invariably served at 4, accompanied by the radio news. Hemon and his sister never allowed to “eat in silence, let alone read or watch television.”  His ideal adolescent dining experience involved Cevapci (grilled sausages in somun, a pocket bread, and until the recent advent of McDonald’s, Bosnia’s primary fast food) accompanied by “comic books, loud music, television, and the absence of our parents and weather forecasting.”  This changes when Hemon enters the army. The lushness of his evocation of good meals- “roast lamb, ham and cheese crepes, or my mother’s spinach pie” [23] is only equalled by his blackly gleeful description of army food: “Dry bread…rancid margarine…a thick bean soup –complete with tiny sprouts that looked like maggots…a greasy cup of prune based bowel movement potion…And those were the good meals.” [24]

Family dining, which, despite his adolescent restlessness creates a bond, is the antithesis of what happens in the army: deprivation creates competition and dishonesty.

…The army was supposed to be one big family, a manly community bound by loyalty and comradeship, sharing everything. As a matter of fact, at no time did we practice anything close to sharing, unless you count the farts. You never, ever offered to anybody your goodie-laden package from home, nor did you leave any food in your locker…if you had any food left after stuffing yourself, you bartered it for clean socks and shirts, for an extra shower or a daytime fire-watch shift. Food wasn’t meant to be shared, because it was a survival commodity. I had no trouble imagining heroically facing the foreign enemy only to die for the can of tuna in my pocket. [25]

In “Family Dining,” His mother visits him from Sarajevo:

Mother had dragged heavy bags of food on the many trains from Sarajevo and had brought along a feast: veal schnitzel, fried chicken, spinach pie, even a custard cake…the first bite into spinach pie brought tears to my eyes and I silently swore that that from thereon in I would always respect the sanctity of our family meals. I wouldn’t entirely keep my promise, needless to say, but as the perfectly mixed spinach and filo dough melted in my mouth, I felt all the love that could be felt by a boy of nineteen.[26]

The last essay in his collection, The Book of my Livesis entitled “The Aquarium.” It concerns the death of his infant daughter from a brain tumour, the most harrowing and affecting narrative he has he has ever written. It is both about loss, and the use of language to, as Hemon has said, make up the losses, of “narrative imagination,” which, like food, is a means of survival.   Hemon and his older daughter, on a break from the hospital, stop by a pastry shop and pick up cannoli. He receives a call that his daughter’s tumour is haemorrhaging. He is struck by the incongruity of the cannoli still in his hands, and puts the cannoli in the hospital refrigerator. The “selfish lucidity” of the act causes him to feel guilty.  “Only later would I understand that that absurd act as related to some form of desperate hope: the cannoli might be necessary for our future survival.”[27] This action underscores the role of food in Hemon’s writing: survival contingent on desperate hope and makeshift joy.


About the Author:

Ann Henry has lived all over the world, including, for some years, Bosnia. She is a teacher and writer. Currently, she is living, working, and writing in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

[1]            Aleksandar Hemon,  “Aleksander Hemon’s Ottoman Era Hole in the Wall Fit for a Yugoslav King” (The Daily Beast; 5/11); [].

[2]              Aleksandar Hemon, “The Question of Bruno” (New York: Random House, 2001), chapter “An Exchange of Pleasant Words”

[3]             Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “The Noble Truths of Suffering” p.202.

[4]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “Family Dining” p. 36.

[5]  Aleksandar Hemon,        The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 11.

[6]              Ibid, p. 11

[7]              Ibid, p.12

[8]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives )New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013) “Who is That?” p. 56

[9]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013)  “Lives of a Flaneur” p. 117

[10]  Ibid, 112

[11]  Aleksandar Hemon, “Aleksander Hemon’s Ottoman Era Hole-in the Wall is Fit for a Yugoslav King”, The Daily Beast, 5/2011, p. 2

[12]  Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “Stairway to Heaven” p. 35

[13]   Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “Everything” p. 39

[14]              Ibid, p. 45

[15]              Ibid, p. 59

[16]    Ibid, p. 59

[17] Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “Sound and Vision” p.29.

[18]   Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno (New York: Vintage, 2001), “Blind Jozef Pronek and the Dead Souls” p. 192

[19]   Ibid. p. 195

[20]  Ibid, p. 187

[21] Ibid, p. 189

[22]  Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p.207

[23] Aleksandar Hemon,  The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013),  “Family Dining” p. 33

[24] Ibid, p. 33-34

[25] Ibid, p. 35

[26]   Ibid, p.35

[27]   Aleksandar Hemon,  The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “The Aquarium” p. 191