the cover of "The World And All That it Holds"

‘The World and All That It Holds’ traces the tragic journey of a gay Jewish refugee from Sarajevo

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

“The World and All That It Holds” is surely one of the more audacious titles of any book I’ve read. But Aleksandar Hemon’s sprawling novel, which traces the long and tragic journey of refugees displaced by conflicts that stained the first half of the 20th century, has an epic quality that justifies the title.

The novel’s central character is Rafael Pinto, a Sarajevan Jew with a penchant for poetry and opium. He feels distanced from the traditional Judaism in which he has been steeped, and his alienation is compounded by the fact that, while his family attempts to find him an appropriate bride, he is sexually attracted to other men.

Rafael has returned to his native city from Vienna, where he studied the latest advances in pharmacology. Taking over his recently deceased father’s apothecary and replacing ancient herbal remedies with modern medicines, he is enthused about living in “a brand-new century, progress was everywhere to behold, the future was endless like the sea — nobody could see the end of it.”

And then, in the vicinity of his shop, Rafael witnesses the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The ensuing eruption of war ends life as he knows it. Drafted into the military, he soon finds himself in the trenches of Galicia defending the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the Russian forces approaching from the east while also defending himself from his fellow soldiers’ antisemitism. The horrors of bigotry and war are softened by the love he develops for a fellow conscript from Sarajevo, a Muslim named Osman. The two clandestinely share a bunk and form a deep romantic bond.

In the aftermath of the 1916 Brusilov Offensive — the powerful Russian assault that decimated much of the Austro-Hungarian army — Rafael and Osman are brought to Uzbekistan as prisoners of war. Eventually finding freedom, they take shelter in a Jewish home in Tashkent, and the pragmatic Osman begins working for the newly ascendant Bolsheviks as they seek to establish control in the Soviet hinterlands. When this situation begins to unravel, they flee eastward with their landlord’s pregnant daughter, Klara, seeking refuge in a more stable place.

The constant in Rafael’s decades of wandering is the surfeit of violence that surrounds him.

During their meandering through China, Rafael and Osman are separated and Rafael becomes the sole guardian of Klara’s daughter, Rahela, following Klara’s death in childbirth. Rafael and Rahela eventually reach Shanghai, and their long stay in the city spans two humanitarian crises: Japan’s assaults on the city in the 1930s and the civil war that accompanied the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution.

The constant in Rafael’s decades of wandering is the surfeit of violence that surrounds him. But set against this backdrop of bloodshed is tremendous love. Rafael is animated by his affection for Osman, for his stories and songs, for his appearance and scent and for the strength he inspires in him in desperate moments. Even long after the two are parted, Rafael is sustained by the hope of reunion and continues to hear Osman’s voice inside his head offering him guidance (a phenomenon abetted by his enduring addiction to opiates). Indeed, Rafael’s protective care of Rahela as they move from one dangerous place to the next derives partly from his confidence that Osman is her biological father, making Rahela the child they share.

Questions of home and exile loom large throughout the novel. Rafael recalls that “Sarajevo Sepharadim liked to say that a Jew is always on his way home, but never makes it there.” Intending to return to Sarajevo, Rafael and Osman find themselves instead moving thousands of miles in the opposite direction. There are no easy paths for them, both because they are stateless and without papers and because the world around them is in constant flux; virtually every land Rafael finds himself in following his conscription is in political turmoil. Further complicating the characters’ dreams of homecoming is the dawning knowledge that in the aftermath of World War II, Sarajevo’s Jewish community may no longer exist.

The evocation of Sarajevo’s Jewish community adds an interesting dimension to the book. Sarajevo was a significant Sephardic center, but most of the city’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Despite his ambivalence about his traditionalist upbringing, Rafael carries with him the Jewish songs, sayings, and memories of his youth, as well as religious teachings that are evoked repeatedly as he tries to make sense of his life.

The many proverbs and lyrics recounted in Judeo-Spanish (referred to in the book as “Spanjol”) reflect the novel’s idiosyncratic use of language. The English text frequently yields to Judeo-Spanish, German, Bosnian, French and other languages. Sometimes that text is translated into English, but often it is not, which can frustrate a reader. Nevertheless, this technique helps establish the polyglot universe that is the consequence of being a refugee. Notably, Rahela and Rafael have their own language, “a mixture of Bosnian and Spanjol and German, with many words they had picked up along the way from Tajik and Kyrgyz and Uighur, and the nameless languages and dialects they had absorbed while following various caravans — they spoke a language that no one in the world spoke other than the two of them, because no one had gone through the things they had.”

Hemon, who is not Jewish, writes with personal knowledge of geographic and linguistic displacement. A native of Sarajevo, he happened to be traveling in the United States when war broke out in Bosnia in 1992. He ended up not only staying, but becoming a widely recognized English-language writer. (His historical novel “The Lazarus Project,” whose chief character is also a Jew, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.) What Hemon has created in this difficult and sometimes maddening novel is a powerful statement both on the stupendous brutality of a world that creates widows, orphans and refugees, and on the love, hope and will to survive that make us endure in spite of it all.

“The World and All That It Holds” by Aleksandar Hemon (Macmillan, 352 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.