Review The world and everything it carries: Aleksandar Hemon’s novel spans decades and continents

Displacement, homelessness, rootlessness – these are all themes that were rooted in our history and the conflicts of the 20th century. Aleksandar Hemon’s writing emphasizes the enduring importance of these themes, even as he depicts the wanderings of peoples and the consequences of the events of the last century.

His new novel The world and everything it contains it begins, strikingly, in 1914 in Sarajevo, with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. From a street corner, Pinto watches in bewilderment as his life and the life of his world are changed, destroyed and reborn in the years that follow. With his secret lover Osman, he is carried by the tide of war, first as a prisoner to the steppes after the Russian revolution, then to Tashkent, and finally to Shanghai. Along the way, he picks up fugitive British spies, unwanted daughters and American adventurers, constantly on the run from the forces of anarchism, warlords and revolutionary militias: whose fates somehow stemmed from the fatal shooting he witnessed as a young man in 1914.

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However, the center of Hemon’s novel is the relationship between Pinto and Osman and his steadfastness in the face of these shattering conflicts. As Pinto miraculously survives, so does his love, even when Osman disappears. Aleksandar Hemon is a writer with a wonderful lyrical expression, and his description of their relationship is the driving force behind this novel. This makes it more than a simple story about goose hunting in the early 20th century. Yet the novel doesn’t seem to be quite a ‘love across the ocean’ story either, which makes it both teasingly ambiguous and a bit frustrating to follow. Hemon takes us into the mind of Pinto as he imagines Osman’s presence after their parting, but the plot loses momentum after the violent and passionate beginning. The novel takes on a reflective tone that borders on sentimentality.

Despite this, Hemon’s writing is always piercingly sharp and imbued with a sense of history—personal, emotional, and world-changing at the same time—that is as fun to read as it is devastating. The novel is imbued with touching reflections on the nature of time and history, and what survives when everything is known in a flash. Hemon’s greatest skill lies in maintaining a wry tone when speaking on such grand philosophical and religious themes: he is most effective when he recites some ancient proverb to explain the pain and loss that permeate his story of destruction and regeneration. It is an often dark novel, but pierced by a candle that never fades.

Patrick Maxwell is a journalist and writer

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