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Aleksandar Hemon on his new novel 'The World And All That It Holds'


Rafael Pinto was there in Sarajevo when shots rang out in 1914. Let's ask Aleksandar Hemon to read from his new novel, "The World And All It Holds."

ALEKSANDAR HEMON: (Reading) To the right of Pinto, a short young man - his hair also unkempt, a thin, strained mustache above his lip, his eyes sickly - pulled out a pistol. For a moment, no one could do anything nor move - even the dog stared at him in bafflement - while all of the reality hinged on that incongruous detail of a barrel pointed directly at Their Imperial Highnesses. The Rittmeister's face tightened in stupefaction, the whole of it. The eyebrows and the mouth and the eyes somehow constricted and became bigger at the same time. The fool reached for the young man's gun - tiny tufts of hair on his fingers between his knuckles - and would've grabbed it if the other man hadn't bumped him aside with his accordion, whereupon the shots rang louder than a cannon salvo. And then, the world exploded.

SIMON: "The World And All That It Holds" (ph) winds from Sarajevo to Shanghai, from World War I to almost a century later - a story told in exacting and poetic English as well as a language unique to Sarajevo, the city where the author was born and that has held so much history. Aleksandar Hemon, the acclaimed author of "The Lazarus Project," "Love And Obstacles," a MacArthur genius who now teaches at Princeton, joins us from there. Thanks so much for being with us.

HEMON: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Help us understand what it's like for Rafael Pinto, who presides over a pharmacy, to see this horrible event, but not knowing that instant how it'll shake up his life.

HEMON: Well, Pinto is a Viennese student who has inherited his father's pharmacy. His father used to provide herbs, but Pinto is excited about the new century of progress that is coming to him and to Sarajevo. And it starts with the visit of the archduke. But the century of progress takes a different turn when the archduke and his wife are assassinated, which starts World War I. Pinto's life has changed, just like everyone else's - and with that shot.

SIMON: He's drafted and loves his country. But what makes him feel like an outsider?

HEMON: Well, he's a Sephardic Jew in Sarajevo, and he's also homosexual. And so he's sent to war to Galicia, now Western Ukraine, where he falls in love with a fellow Bosnian soldier who is of Muslim background. And the story follows them all the way to Shanghai.

SIMON: Well, what do he and Osman find in each other? They are different.

HEMON: They just love each other. At no point do two of them pass through what we would call now a nation state or a functioning society. That world is destroyed in the first chapter with the shots in Sarajevo. And so they pass through landscapes and wars and battles and - trying to survive in various ways. And the more that is the case, the closer they get. In the end, all they have is each other. And Pinto keeps longing for Osman well beyond the point of their parting.

SIMON: Yeah. May I ask - I had the pleasure of interviewing you before, but I don't think I know the answer to this. How did you begin to write in English?

HEMON: Well, I found myself in the United States in the early '90s when the war in Bosnia started. And I had been a writer, published writer, and worked in journalism. And I found myself in a situation of understanding that I might not go back and that my - and I did not have access to the language, which was being changed by the facts of war. So I decided to enable myself to write in English - and it took me a few years - mainly by way of reading.

SIMON: There's another language used evocatively, effectively, poetically in the book - Spanjol. How do we understand it?

HEMON: It's the Castilian Spanish that the Sephardic Jew carried after they were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. And it was spoken in Sarajevo and all across the former Ottoman Empire lands, where the Sephardic Jews settled after the expulsion.

SIMON: Why was it important to you to include it in the book?

HEMON: I wanted to have a multilingual consciousness at the center of the book, someone who can bring in references, thoughts, languages, words from different languages at the same time. This is how my mind operates although Pinto speaks more languages than I do or will ever speak. But I wanted that kind of presence - right? - that the world has extra dimensions to him as this language. There's a moment in the book when he goes through all the words for stork in the languages he knows.

SIMON: Yeah.

HEMON: And each of the words adds a different dimension to the stork as such. To me, this is how mine has worked on a smaller scale.

SIMON: Am I wrong to think that it also reminded us that we all have a special language we speak with those we love?

HEMON: Yes, I think - in linguistics, there's a concept of macaronic language. It is what a lot of immigrants might do when they combine a couple of languages, say English and a native language, in the same sentence because they can't remember the words. So the language they speak contains Bosnian and Spanjol and German and English because they end up in Shanghai where English is spoken. And they pass through what is now Central Asia, so they know some Kyrgyz words and Tajik words and so on. And so I wanted to create an idea of a language that only the two of them speak.

SIMON: At one point, Pinto muses, we just live because we are afraid to die. You know, I'm in no position to disagree and especially given what he has seen of life. But is it also possible people who've had to live through terrible criminal loss go on because they see close up that life is a chance to be taken if you have it?

HEMON: He says that, and he thinks that. But the counterargument - because his mind is kind of dialogical and he debates things to himself, the counterargument is his love for Osman, the Bosnian soldier, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

HEMON: And so without love, it is just, you know, biology of life and mere survival. It's a revolutional (ph) desire just to be alive. And the necessary ingredient is love and what redeems him from such dark thoughts or at least helps him get through the difficult situation he finds himself in. It's his love for Osman and for Rahela, their daughter.

SIMON: Aleksandar Hemon his new novel, "The World And All That It Holds" (ph). Thank you so much for being with us.

HEMON: Thank you very much. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.