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‘The World and All That It Holds’ lives up to its sweeping title

Aleksandar Hemon’s novel tells the story of humanity’s most cataclysmic era from the intimate perspective of ordinary souls

(Alla Dreyvitser/The Washington Post)
6 min

The World and All That It Holds” would be an audacious title for a book by anybody except God — or Aleksandar Hemon. But this Bosnian American author will make you a believer.

Born in Sarajevo, Hemon has lived in the United States since the 1992 war decimated his homeland. Writing in English — his adopted language — he’s attracted an adoring critical following but not the popular audience he deserves. In 2004, he won a MacArthur “genius” grant, and his 2008 novel, “The Lazarus Project,” was a finalist for a National Book Award. The comparisons to Nabokov are not outlandish.

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Hemon’s charismatic new novel wends its way across Europe and Asia during the first half of the 20th century, taking in the world and, yes, all that it holds. This is the story of humanity’s most cataclysmic era, but the perspective has been pulled away from historical headlines to embrace instead those ordinary souls unloosed from their disintegrating countries and sent to wander the globe.

That sounds awfully grim, I know, and there’s plenty of horror in these fiery pages, but the irrepressible voice of “The World and All That It Holds” glides along a cushion of poignancy buoyed by wry humor. From start to finish, no matter what else he’s up to, Hemon is telling a tale about the resilience of true love.

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The novel opens with its own Genesis: “The Holy One kept creating worlds and destroying them, creating worlds and destroying them, and then, just before giving up, He finally came up with this one. And it could be much worse.”

It’s about to be.

The protagonist is Rafael Pinto, a poet and apothecary — equally efficacious professions in 1914. Pinto trained in Vienna and lives in Sarajevo. Even as a Jew and a homosexual, he has little reason to be apprehensive. After all, the air is filled with optimism. “We now lived in a brand-new century,” Hemon writes, “progress was everywhere to behold, the future was endless, like a sea — nobody could see the end of it.”

In fact, Pinto is on hand to see the end of it. While he’s fantasizing about a tryst with a cavalry officer, here comes a fancy car carrying Archduke Ferdinand. There’s a brief scuffle involving an officer, an accordion player and a young man with a gun. It would be slapstick if the repercussions weren’t so dire. Pinto is close enough to see the archduke choke on his own blood.

That assassination was “the exact moment, no longer than what passes between heartbeats, that broke the world in two, into the before and the after.” Within weeks, Pinto and tens of thousands of other Bosnians are conscripted into the imperial army and sent to die in trenches defending a hereditary political order that’s already gone.

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So begins the picaresque journey of this deeply endearing, often frustrating man who does his best to heal others even while nursing his own despair with opium. “God is always the same, yet people have to change, and they all eventually change from alive to dead,” Pinto sighs. “Why not die right now? Why keep going?”

The answer he finds to that existential challenge is a Muslim soldier named Osman. Gregarious, funny and brave, Osman is everything Pinto is not, but they instantly fall in love and lust — “in a trench, in the woods, on a haystack.” Although Osman is strikingly handsome, his stories — part Isaac Bashevis Singer, part Anthony Marra — are really what arouse Pinto and sustain him. He would have “prayed to be relieved of his abhorrent passion,” Hemon writes. “But the only prayer that came to his mind now was to the Lord to let him keep Osman for the rest of time.”

One harrowing, gonzo adventure arrives after another as Pinto and Osman find themselves blown from battle to battle, atrocity to atrocity. In the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, a million soldiers die, but “back then,” Hemon notes, “the two of them, or any of the nothings and nobodies whose bodies were to be destroyed, had no name for it, for it needed no name since it was simply what it was.”

From a Russian jail in Turkestan to a ghetto in Shanghai, “The World and All That It Holds” runs along the wire of Pinto’s tenuous hope. Mad tyrants and elegant spies cross through the chapters of this epic with dazzling effect, but none really can draw our eyes from Pinto nor his eyes from Osman.

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The plot’s inexhaustible invention is just one of this novel’s wonders. The other is Hemon’s mysterious narrator. He speaks from the future but resides incarnate in these characters, especially Pinto, capturing with perfect fidelity their desires and fears, the great collage of their disparate pasts, all laced through with the shrugging acknowledgment that God will do whatever He wants with us.

Each chapter is helpfully dated, but the scenes demonstrate a strange mix of intense specificity at the center and alluring fuzziness around the edges. Characters are sometimes introduced long after we meet them; events are explained only when we’ve given up guessing. Without ever becoming trippy, it’s an artful, fluid structure that manages to reflect a historian’s collage of details and Pinto’s addiction to narcotics, which periodically raises him above the stream of time and sometimes knocks him out entirely. Consequently, the chronology slides back and forth, as the narrative slips into other years, other perspectives, even, briefly, other languages. (It’s surely no accident that Hemon co-wrote the screenplay for “The Matrix Resurrections,” starring Keanu Reeves.)

“The past was elsewhere,” Hemon writes, “the present was always this — the masses of refugees moving around the city looking for food and a place, for some way not to die.” That’s been the plight of untold millions for generations. The real miracle of “The World and All That It Holds” is that despite holding so much, we come to know the fragile joys of this one melancholy man so well that he feels written into our own past.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

The World and All That It Holds

by Aleksandar Hemon

MCD/FSG. 336 pp. $28

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