The Book of My Lives

And the world around me was nothing if not an infinity of distractions: cute girls, novels and comic books, my budding record collection, neighborhood boys whistling from the playground under my window, beckoning me to a soccer game.

Before the war, the domain of culture seemed to offer a haven from the increasingly hateful world of politics. Now, when I hear the word culture, I pull out the quote commonly attributed to Hermann Goring: "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.

But nothing has ever been—nor will it ever be—the way it used to be.

But the moment you point at a difference, you enter, regardless of age, an already existing system of differences, a network of identities, all of them ultimately arbitrary and unrelated to your intentions, none of them a matter of your choice. The moment you other someone, you other yourself. When I idiotically pointed at Almir's non-existent difference, I expelled myself from my raja.

Displacement results in a tenuous relationship with the past, with the self that used to exist and operate in a different place, where the qualities that constituted us were in no need of negotiation. Immigration is an ontological crisis because you are forced to negotiatet the conditions of your selfhood under pereptually changing existential circumstances.

Don’t you wonder sometimes,” sang Bowie all the way to Kinshasa, “about sound and vision?

I do not know how old I was when I learned to play chess. I could not have been older than eight, because I still have a chessboard on whose side my father inscribed, with a soldering iron, “Saša Hemon 1972.” I loved the board more than chess—it was one of the first things I owned. Its materiality was enchanting to me: the smell of burnt wood that lingered long after my father had branded it; the rattle of the thickly varnished pieces inside, the smacking sound they made when I put them down, the board’s hollow wooden echo. I can even recall the taste—the queen’s tip was pleasantly suckable; the pawns’ round heads, not unlike nipples, were sweet. The board is still at our place in Sarajevo, and, even if I haven’t played a game on it in decades, it is still my most cherished possession, providing incontrovertible evidence that there once lived a boy who used to be me.

If my mind and my city were the same thing then I was losing my mind.

I had an epiphany: I was a loser.

I much preferred winning to thinking and I didn't like losing at all.

Isabel’s indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.

It took me about fifteen minutes to get to the hospital, through traffic that existed in an entirely different space-time.

It was a great fucking time, the short era of disaster euphoria, for nothing enhances pleasures and blocks guilt like a looming cataclysm.

I wanted us to share the sense that the number of wrong moves far exceeds the number of good moves, to share the frightening instability of the correct decision, to bond in being confounded.

Listening to Ella furiously and endlessly unfurl the yarns of the Mingus tales, I understood that the need to tell stories is deeply embedded in our minds, and inseparably entangled with the mechanisms that generate and absorb language. Narrative imagination--and therefore fiction--is a basic evolutionary tool of survival. We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.

-not only did he deplore the waste of words, he detested the moral lassitude with which they were wasted. To him, in whose throat the bone of displacement was forever stuck, it was wrong to talk about nothing when there was a perpetual shortage of words for all the horrible things that happened in the world. It was better to be silent than to say what didn't matter.

One of the most common platitudes we heard was that “words failed.” But words were not failing us at all. It was not true that there was no way to describe our experience. We had plenty of language to talk to each other about the horror of what was happening, and talk we did. If there was a communication problem it was that there were too many words; they were far too heavy and too specific to be inflicted upon others. If something was failing it was the functionality of routine, platitudinous language—the comforting clichés were now inapplicable and perfectly useless. We instinctively protected other people from the knowledge we possessed; we let them think that words failed, because we knew they didn’t want to be familiar with the vocabulary we used daily. We were sure they didn’t want to know what we did; we didn’t want to know it either.

One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling, that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.

Only those who do not care, only those who find a way to diminish or extinguish the value of other human beings, survive wars without damage and speak of warrior honor afterward.

Projecting yourself until everything is talking about you is, of course, a self-flattering form of self-pity

-the apartment had been directly in the sight line of a Serb sniper across the river. Teta-Jozefina was a devout Catholic, but she somehow managed to believe in essential human goodness, despite all the abundant evidence to the contrary surrounding her. She felt that the sniper was essentially a good man because during the siege, she said, he had often shot over her and her husband's heads to warn them that he was watching and that they shouldn't move so carelessly in their own apartment.

The cafeteria in the Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital basement was the saddest place in the world—and forever it shall be—with its grim neon lights and gray tabletops and the diffuse foreboding of those who stepped away from suffering children to have a grilled cheese sandwich.

The hopeless hope is one of the early harbingers of spring, bespeaking an innocent belief that the world might right its wrongs and reverse its curses simply because the trees are coming into leaf.

Then everyone would retreat for a nap, after which we would have coffee and cake, sometimes an argument.

There’s a psychological mechanism, I’ve come to believe, that prevents most of us from imagining the moment of our own death. For if it were possible to imagine fully that instant of passing from consciousness to nonexistence, with all the attendant fear and humiliation of absolute helplessness, it would be very hard to live, as it would be unbearably obvious that death is inscribed in everything that constitutes life, that any moment of our existence is a breath away from being the last one. We would be continuously devastated by the magnitude of that inescapable moment, so our minds wisely refuse to consider it. Still, as we mature into mortality, we gingerly dip our horror-tingling toes in the void, hoping that the mind will somehow ease itself into dying, that God or some other soothing opiate will remain available as we venture deeper into the darkness of nonbeing.

But how can you possibly ease yourself into the death of your child? For one thing, it is supposed to happen well after your own dissolution into nothingness. Your children are supposed to outlive you by several decades, in the course of which they’ll live their lives, happily devoid of the burden of your presence, eventually completing the same mortal trajectory as their parents: oblivion, denial, fear, the end. They’re supposed to handle their own mortality, and no help in that regard (other than forcing them to confront death by way of your dying) can come from you—death ain’t a science project. And even if you could imagine your child’s death, why would you?

To him, in whose throat the bone of displacement was forever stuck, it was wrong to talk about nothing when there was a perpetual shortage of words for all the horrible things that happened in the world. It was better to be silent than to say what didn't matter. One had to protect from the onslaught of wasted words the silent place deep inside oneself, where all the pieces could be arranged in a logical manner, where the opponents abided by the rules, where even if you ran out of possibilities there might be a way to turn defeat into victory.

We hated pretentiousness; it was a form of self-hatred.

we wept within the moment that was dividing our life into before and after, whereby the before was forever foreclosed, while the after was spreading out, like an exploding twinkle-star, into a dark universe of pain.

While he wanted to teach me what he knew, I wanted him to see what it all looked like for me—perhaps love is a process of finding a common vision of reality.

...while hiding in plain sight in Belgrade, undercover as a New Age mountebank, Karadži? frequented a bar called Mad House - Luda ku?a. Mad House offered weekly gusle-accompanied performances of Serbian epic poetry; wartime pictures of him and General Ratko Mladi?, the Bosnian Serbs' military leader (now on trial in The Hague), proudly hung on the walls. A local newspaper claimed that, on at least one occasion, Karadži? performed an epic poem in which he himself featured as the main hero, undertaking feats of extermination. Consider the horrible postmodernism of the situation: an undercover war criminal narrating his own crimes in decasyllabic verse, erasing his personality so that he could assert it more forcefully and heroically.