Book Review: My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinović

My Heart – Semezdin Mehmedinović (Catapult, 2021)

I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book from the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own. This book is for sale now.

My Heart is a gentle, contemplative read. It is like reading the journal of a man who knows he is living the second half of his life. The first half has been full of drama and movement while the second half remains uncertain. The book is presented as a novel but there are clearly large influences of Mehmedinović’s own life, from the names of the characters to their history in Sarajevo.

The narrator, who bears Mehmedinović’s name, is a writer, a resident of the United States, a man who lived through the siege of Sarajevo with his wife and son before moving to the US in the early 1990s. His son is now an adult, a successful photographer, while Mehmedinović and his wife, Sanja, have settled in an apartment in Washington, DC. In the first section, the narrator has a heart attack and we follow him through his stay in the hospital and in the aftermath as he recovers. In the second section, Mehmedinović travels with his son, re-visiting some of the places they lived when they first arrived in the US, and watching his son do his photography work. In the third section, Sanja suffers a stroke and here she is hospitalized and we follow Mehmedinović as he navigates her care afterward. Sanja’s memory suffers and she struggles in the aftermath of the stroke and Mehmedinović must face that she will likely never quite be the same and how this changes their relationship.

Each section is slow and thoughtful. There is not a lot of action and yet the book is very readable. Mehmedinović’s voice is gentle and methodical. His descriptions of the world around him are simple but beautiful, grounded in the physical. This is particularly moving as he navigates first his own health crisis and then his wife’s. Even when it is clear that he has to have survived his heart attack, there is tension reading about the experience, the moment in which he thinks he will die. There is tragedy and deep love as he struggles to support Sanja after her stroke, and begins to understand that she has entered a new stage of life, that things will not simply return to how they once were.

Sarajevo is a constant background to Mehmedinović’s life. While we don’t get many stories of his experience during the siege, the book is full of references to it, to what their life was like in Sarajevo beforehand and what it was like in the early days of their move to America. In the end, it’s a rather brilliant portrayal of trauma. Mehmedinović and Sanja and their son might not look like traumatized people in the course of their daily lives but as we follow them through a variety of situations, we see how that trauma follows them, informs their decision making. Mehmedinović subtly shows us the trauma of leaving behind your home, your language.

Refugees have two worlds, the one they have left and the one where they are now. The antagonism of the two worlds is the essence of exile. That duality is carried over into language: the first language is the mother tongue, the other the language of the new surroundings.

Semezdin Mehmedinović, My Heart

Language is a recurring theme too that Mehmedinović explores. The language that Sanja loses after her stroke. The fact that Mehmedinović speaks and works in English but writes in his native language, Bosnian. When this was pointed out within the book’s narrative, I found myself startled; I had forgotten that this was a translation. And I think this speaks to the quality of this translation into English by Celia Hawkesworth, that I forgot completely that she existed.

Having now read Semezdin Mehmedinović’s contemplative work on aging and later life, I’m very curious to return to his earlier work and explore his literary history.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: My Heart by Semezdin Mehmedinović”

  1. Oooooh, you make this book sound lovely, Karissa. The comments about an old life and a new life, especially after a health crisis, reminded me again of the poetry collection I reviewed about living with a traumatic brain injury. There was a her before the accident and a her after. I’m not sure if it’s a Western thing, but it feels like in the U.S. at least that we have this idea that we need to be one person and never change. For instance, if you get new information and change your mind, you’re wishy-washy. If you go away to college and come back with a new outlook on things, “you’ve changed” (and that’s said in a negative way). But our inability to change — to adapt, flex, be different people — is highlighted in the pandemic. You can see who thought they were one person, one identity, and that there was a permanence to that. I don’t believe it’s a good thing.

    1. Thank you! I thought of that book you reviewed too actually! Things like that definitely create a clear Before and After but of course you’re right that we naturally change (and, I’d argue, should change) throughout our lives. This is often something I think about when people argue that you shouldn’t get married young because “Well, what if you change as you get older?” As if change is something we only go through in our 20s. There are things I firmly believed or ways I lived my life in my early 20s that I’ve come to see differently as I’ve aged and I expect there will be things I think now that I have a new perspective on when I reach my 40s or 50s. Heck, there are things I thought a year ago that I don’t think now! And yes, you’re right, it’s become very apparent in this pandemic when people are unwilling to adapt and adjust. I feel like I’ve also seen that a lot around ideas of race and racism that have been challenged this last year. I’ve seen some people really make an effort to change their language and re-think how they might be perpetuating racism while others just…won’t.

  2. I like the sound of this one-I’ve almost never been disappointed by a translated book, it almost feels as if people have gone to the trouble of buying a book in another language and translating it-it must be good! And is there anything scarier about the idea of your partner becoming a different person due to illness? The thought alone is terrifying.

    1. That’s a really good point. I think it’s fair to say that translated works get an extra vetting.

      One of the saddest parts of the change his wife goes through is that she loses some of her memory. There is so much shared when you’re with someone for a long time and to suddenly be the only one holding those memories would be such a loss.

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