Book review - The World and All That It Holds

There’s something majestic about The World and All That It Holds, Aleksandar Hemon’s latest novel. An epic tale spanning the first half of the last century, it opens in 2014 in Sarajevo and ends in Shanghai in 1949. Not surprisingly, given its ambition, the novel took Hemon 12 years to complete.

The Bosnian-American author is best known for his novels Nowhere Man (2002) and The Lazarus Project (2008), for his non-fiction including The Book of My Lives (2013), and as being co-scriptwriter of The Matrix Resurrections (2021). Themes of displacement and migration recur in Hemon’s work. These are subjects he knows well. In 1992, he visited Chicago, just before Serbian forces devastated his home city, and was granted political asylum. His great-grandfather left Ukraine for Bosnia before the first world war.

The World and All That It Holds centres on Rafael Pinto, a Bosnian-Jewish apothecary who, having recently returned from studying medicine in Vienna, witnesses the catalyst for the first world war: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Two years later, while serving in the Austro-Hungarian army, he meets Muslim orphan Osman Karisik. They fall in love, survive cholera in the Carpathians and then the Brusilov Offensive in Galicia before being taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in Tashkent, run by Russians.

The pair enjoy fleeting happiness on their release in 1919, before they are caught up in the machinations of the Bolshevik revolution. They lose each other in the mountains of Turkestan and Pinto ends up struggling to find a safe place for himself and his adopted baby daughter Rahela. After a few gruelling years in the desert with fellow refugees, they reach Shanghai. Here they survive the second Sino-Japanese war, and Pinto struggles with opium addiction. Osman’s ghostly presence is felt throughout, recalling his voice and his storytelling helps Pinto through his bleakest moments, when he fears being engulfed by “la gran eskuridad” (the great darkness).

Their world is so full of horror that Hemon’s characters often question the existence of a god. “Only the past matters, because it is the only thing that outlives everything and everyone”, Pinto muses, recalling happier times. Hemon uses striking imagery to illustrate the senselessness of war: “The trench was rife with cadavers, scattered like apples under the tree, already rotting, the stench growing thick as snot.” The passages depicting bloodshed are so relentless on occasion I had to pause reading. But the brutality of conflict and displacement is beautifully contrasted with the tenderness of the men’s love story and, later, by the father-daughter relationship — described as “the throbbing of love in his head for a child that was not even his”.

Hemon vividly conveys the unrelenting hardship, despair and monotony of the refugee’s life, of what it means to live without papers and retain a shred of dignity. Pinto and Rahela rely on each other and learn to expect little from their fellow humans. Hemon remains true to the multilingual world his characters inhabit and uses a smattering of different languages without always offering a translation. Pinto and Rahela speak a mix of Spanjol, Bosnian, German and other dialects that they’ve picked up on their odyssey.

The narrative is occasionally commandeered by a British master spy, Major Moser-Ethering (aka Sparky). He first meets Pinto in Tashkent while playing the Great Game, the conflict between the British and Russian Empires over Central and South Asia. Pinto saves his leg from gangrene and soon after Sparky saves Pinto’s life. He crops up again in Shanghai and helps secure a place for Rahela to study at the American School.

The book is structured in order to provide fragments from the protagonists’ lives. Sometimes a section will end abruptly, jumping ahead a few years. Occasionally the author’s voice breaks into the narrative — for example, informing us that he knows Pinto met Sparky in Shanghai “because the Englishman writes about it in A Foreign Devil in Asia, his very last memoir before his death in 1974” — before taking over the epilogue, which is set in Jerusalem a week before 9/11. Narrated in the first person, a writer at a literary festival meets an elderly woman who sings him an old Bosnian song and tells him a little of her past. An idea for a novel is born.

In his acknowledgments, Hemon mentions Damir Imamović’s album, a contemporary take on Bosnian traditional music inspired by The World and All That It Holds. He calls it “an outrageous masterpiece”, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting description for Hemon’s own work.

Originally published by the Financal Times