- Peter Byrne
A World Overflowing
In a refugee-scattering era routes to expatriation are many, some of them surprising. Aleksandar Hemon from Sarajevo was happily rooted in his city. He took a flight to Chicago for a short break. April 5, 1992, Sarajevo was besieged and the Bosnian War began. The carefree, 28-year-old, football-and-music-loving tyro writer, had to ask himself what turned out to be the question of his life. Should he rush home? He decided not to. Today he’s still troubled by Susan Sontag’s criticism of him for not answering yes. That trouble has given birth to The World And All That It Holds, a novel of 331 pages that took him thirty years to chew over and twelve to write. It’s about refugees, one of which he became by his own decision after history played him that dirty trick.
The novel is all about someone removed from Sarajevo and forever trying, and failing, to get back. What prevents Rafael Pinto’s return is war, the First World War and then lesser ones leading to the Second World War and those that followed it. Pinto had witnessed up close the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne, which marked the beginning of the great age of dispersal.
Hemon’s dedication of his novel reads, “For refugees of the world”. Though he’s not an author who delivers messages, his book is timely. Wars never stop. Natural disasters and climate change swell refugee numbers. Policies of the English-speaking countries are disquieting. The Australians have dumped some of their unwanted arrivals in Papua New Guinea. The USA has strong-armed theirs into Mexico, and the British government is intent on flying asylum seekers four thousand miles to be rid of them in Rwanda.
The World And All That It Holds is less concerned with the rules and regulations that constrain refugees than with what goes on in their heads. Pinto, one of Sarajevo’s Sephardim Jews is a pharmacist who has studied in Vienna. He is gentle and homosexual. Conscripted as a medical aid, he forms a union with Osman, a soldier from Sarajevo’s Muslim community. Like all love affairs when looked at closely theirs is unique. It’s fiercely carnal, because the world seen by Hemon is carnal, but remains very much about love in a larger sense in which the label homosexual is superfluous. That particular material world has a powerful immaterial side.
Pinto, whose feelings and thinking we follow, has strayed from the Sarajevo mindset of the day only by his acceptance of his own indomitable sexual drive. His view of Osman’s beauty and charm adheres to the vocabulary and sentiment of traditional heterosexual romantic love. Osman for him is all grace, optimism and willingness to help. He seems almost like a figure of Pinto’s wishful imagination.
Pinto’s narrative of the two men’s life together is caught in an extraordinary verbal web. His raw affection is accompanied by words from the Torah and local Jewish lore, by bits of the Sephardi, Spanish-derived Spanjol or Ladino, by Viennese German and Osman’s crumbs of Arabic, all framed by Sarajevo’s own Bosnian. But the non-linguist has no difficulty navigating what is essentially a novel in English. The language salad serves to suggest what haunts minds in Sarajevo’s happy ethnic muddle.
The lovers stick together in the Austrian army. A pattern soon develops. Pinto, the bumbler, has some small status as a medical aid but is emotionally dependent upon the simple soldier Osman who is practical and protective. Their regiment confronted by the Russian Imperial forces in Galicia is decimated on the battlefield before being finished off by cholera. A cycle begins, Pinto keeping Osman alive in the epidemic and Osman tending him in the next onslaught of fever. The two are captured in the Russian offensive of June 1916 and transported to a prison camp in distant Tashkent. Pinto’s thirty-five-year traversing of the world has begun.
The two languish as prisoners until the Revolution explodes in Russia. Freed, they are imperilled by the savage conflict between Reds and Whites that follows. Osman, always enterprising, manages to convince the revolutionaries of his usefulness. He and Pinto are safe but only for a time. Out of character for a moment, Osman impregnates a Russian Jewish woman and then, himself again, dies in an heroic gesture that saves Pinto’s life.
The Sarajevo pharmacist has never been far from despair, staggered by guilt, ruminating on the grimmest sayings of the Torah. He’s already a morphine addict and will end enslaved to the opium pipe. Osman was his only delight. He knows that keeping alive is the full-time occupation of a refugee and now deems it’s not worth the effort. However, circumstance involves him with the pregnant Russian as she dies giving birth to Osman’s daughter. Only he, Pinto, can save the infant. Here, in the wastes of the Taklamakan Desert, the novel shows its true colours as the story of the false father Pinto and the girl-child Rahela. Pinto’s care for her is, of course, an extension of his love for Osman—which love is Aleksandar Hemon’s overarching theme.
In his weakness, the only way that Pinto can function as a protective parent is by conjuring up the presence of Osman. His dead lover will step in to insist Pinto not give up and stay alive as man and girl submit to the horror of the refugee condition. At the end of their story, after clinging to desert caravans, after Shanghai under Japanese assault, after Manilla in the Cold War, Rahela, a women in her thirties on her way to Sarajevo, will inherit the presence of Osman and his help. That help comes from Pinto and Osman’s undying love. As far as the novel’s reader is concerned, he’s tempted to see the figure of Osman as being the will of the refugee to survive:
“The meaning of life is not to be dead; you live so as not to die.[…] All we want from life is to keep living. It’s that simple.” (p.200)
There are lows and highs in Hemon’s writing. Of the latter, the time of Pinto and the child Rahela in a desert sand storm is mesmerising. (p.179-186) Perforce they shelter in a cave. In the darkness they discover it’s already inhabited by “a leather-faced man”. He ignores them completely and goes about strange rites with fire which—who knows?—may be vital matters for him. The storm over, he leaves the cave without a word. But what could he say? These wayfarers, victims all, have no common language. The man digs for water in the sand outside, busy with his own survival. Who else would be concerned with it? No scene could better depict the life of a refugee. That life unfolds in places unknown, changing, and therefore menacing. Going on, continuing, is the only thing that fills the mind. This episode is worthy of Franz Kafka.