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The World and All That It Holds–in all its hilarious, heartbreaking, erotic, philosophical glory–showcases Aleksandar Hemon’s celebrated talent at its pinnacle. It is a grand, tender, sweeping story that spans decades and continents.
As the Archduke Franz Ferdinand arrives in Sarajevo one June day in 1914, Rafael Pinto is busy crushing herbs and grinding tablets behind the counter at the pharmacy he inherited from his estimable father. It’s not quite the life he had expected during his poetry-filled student days in libertine Vienna, but it’s nothing a dash of laudanum from the high shelf, a summer stroll, and idle fantasies about passersby can’t put in perspective.
And then the world explodes. In the trenches in Galicia, fantasies fall flat. Heroism gets a man killed quickly. War devours all that they have known, and the only thing Pinto has to live for are the attentions of Osman, a fellow soldier, a man of action to complement Pinto’s introspective, poetic soul; a charismatic storyteller; Pinto’s protector and lover.
Together, Pinto and Osman will escape the trenches, survive near-certain death, tangle with spies and Bolsheviks. Over mountains and across deserts, from one world to another, all the way to Shanghai, it is Pinto’s love for Osman–with the occasional opiatic interlude–that keeps him going.
Aleksander Hemon’s newest epic novel The World and All That It Holds starts with Archduke Franz Ferdinand visiting Sarajevo in 1914 and getting assassinated on the street in front of the main character, Rafael Pinto. This event changes everything for Pinto, a Bosnian Jew, who goes to war and falls in love with another soldier, Osman, who becomes his partner his entire life, even when they are torn apart. The novel sweeps through four decades of Pinto going to war, being a prisoner, and eventually trying to figure out how to get back home to Sarajevo, with hopes that he will somehow reunite with his family. The journey that Rafael Pinto takes is one that is heartbreaking, dangerous, and at times desperate.
Rafael’s journey, accompanied by various miles traveled, various opiates ingested, and various unsavory characters befriended, is one that is wonderfully written by Aleksander Hemon. Most of Hemon’s writings involve wars in Europe, particularly Bosnia, and these stories really bring the grit, gore, and danger of the situations to life. There are many times through this novel when I did not know if this scene was the end for Rafael because I did not know how much more a human could take. Some of the finest moments are with Rafael and Osman, who whispers to him in the bunkers during battle, while in prison and starving, and even when they are separated. Osman’s voice is the voice that warns him to get out some dangerous situations, to look out for certain people. The connection that these two men have, as lovers, as companions, and as lifelong guardians, has a tenacity that makes you hope everything works out for them in the end. When I examine the title The World and All That It Holds, it can be taken literally, but there is also another meaning. We are presented with Rafael’s world, and by the end, we are shown everything that Rafael holds dear. His home, his family, his drugs, but most importantly his love.
For as beautiful and as compelling as this story is, some of the writing did leave me in the dark. There are many many instances of phrases, songs, and conversations in German, French, Spanjol, and Bosnian, without any hints of translation. Even though the book is very lyrical and wonderfully written, the language changes are so frequent that it pulls me out of the story, where I have to stop and translate the text. I wanted to be closer to this story, this world, and it is obvious that the different languages also represent the entire world that Pinto lives in, but it made it harder for me to stay engaged and focused on his journey.
I received this as a ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.