Semezdin Mehmedinović, translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth
Catapult, 2021. $27.00, 240 pages.
When a writer works from the heart, he or she invites readers into a communion. In the autobiographical novel My Heart, the Bosnian writer Semezdin Mehmedinović offers us an opportunity for fellowship with his beloved family. He works within his text like a stonemason, assembling small narrative fragments into cairns that outline a heartfelt landscape. These segments are joined with sacramental care as he fashions three tales, one for each member of the family. The stories are told in gentle humor, plainly and without ornament, yet that very simplicity reveals layers of pain and love so intense they almost become the readers’ own experience.
Mehmedinović fled Sarajevo in 1996 with his wife and son after four years of siege and bombardment by Bosnian Serb troops, a story he told in Sarajevo Blues. The uncertainties of death and destruction permeated daily life in Sarajevo, yet Mehmedinović, like many others, refused to yield his place, his home, his matrix of belonging. The end of the war failed to bring personal safety, so he and his family sought refuge in the United States, where they lived for more than twenty years. The events of My Heart take place during this prolonged exile, although the shadow of Bosnia falls across every page.
With masterful craft, Mehmedinović assembles his mosaic, tight enough to tell the tales yet loose enough to contain the diversity of his thought. In the opening section, the narrator’s heart attack is followed by the anxieties of every treatment decision. Throughout, his wife’s tender care provides reassurance. The second segment describes a road trip through the American Southwest that the narrator takes with his son as he searches for a resolution to his guilt about refusing to take the family out of Sarajevo during the war. As they explore the desert country, the narrator discovers that his son is no longer the traumatized child of a bombarded city, but an adult grounded in a new land. In the third and most heartbreaking section, he tells the story of his wife, her stroke, and how it becomes his turn to give care.
The need to care for each other is at the core of this book. Mehmedinović lets us consider how we negotiate this challenge in life, understanding that even though we can’t be perfect, the effort yields purpose and meaning. He charts his ethics along a dialectic of care and precariousness, reminding us that life remains essentially precarious everywhere. We are always just one accident or emergency away from needing care to being called upon to provide it. With humility and sweet irony, Mehmedinović documents the resources of his family, forged within the crucible of war. His descriptions of the love shared between husband and wife are profound:
“Are you related?” asks a nurse.
“She’s my wife.”
But when I say, “She’s my wife,” that is a simplification, she’s more than that. For instance, in 1993, during the siege of Sarajevo, a murderer pointed the barrel of a Kalashnikov at my chest. And she stepped between the gun and me.
Too often, we are glib about the power of love. We want to think of it as a romantic notion of idyll and pleasure. In the abstract, it is an easy thing to honor. Mehmedinović brings us back to Earth, reminding us that it’s not ethereal; love is an essential element of the life system. He’s also clear about this: without dedication and effort, love doesn’t exist.
James M. Wright is a writer living on the coast of Maine.