‘The Aquarium’ by Aleksandar Hemon

This is a true story and it is devastating. What could be more harrowing than the death of a parent and the dissolution of a family? Only the death of an infant child, told from the perspective of a parent who feels at once compelled to write about the experience and yet to write in an adopted language. Aleksandar Hemon was granted asylum in the United States when war broke out in his native Bosnia in 1992, and he began publishing in English a decade later. In 2010, however, his nine-month-old daughter Isabel was diagnosed with an exceptionally rare type of brain tumour, and after a series of awful interventions she died in hospital before her first birthday. In his retelling of her death, Hemon pins extraordinary hopes on mastering a language he doesn’t understand — medical terminology that carries the false promise of a firm diagnosis with a fixed course of treatment — until the catastrophic moment brings him to a point at which language escapes him and he falls back on just two words of incredible, raw emotion. The story is simultaneously a testament to the inadequacy of language in the face of death and a declaration of faith in the capacities of language to make survival bearable.

From The Book of My Lives, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013; read it at the New Yorker here)

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