Review: ‘The World And All That It Holds’ by Aleksandar Hemon

The World And All That It Holds

The World and All That It Holds is an odyssey, one that feeds on the process of its own completion, tearing through both the heart and the body restraining it. As World War I breaks out, Pinto and Osman are brought together as soldiers, bound by trauma and desire, and ultimately battered by the volatile tides of time.

And yet, Hemon’s sweeping tale offers a subtle, sensory beginning. With the visit of Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitating a fate of which Pinto is as yet unaware, language takes center stage, swelling in the bustling city. 

In one of its darker corners, a man enters Pinto’s pharmacy, bringing with him the titillating scent of possibility, smelling “like Vienna, like something that accelerated Pinto’s heartbeat and made his palms sweat.”

Wonderfully, The World and All That It Holds is not a coming-of-age tale; at least not as far as the body and its passions are concerned. As a result, Pinto’s desire is as devoid of shame as it can be for that time period, allowing him to experience every facet of life, both openly and in secret.

Sensory and hypnotic, his existence weaves a thread of eroticism through the mundane. So much so that even the simple act of looking takes on a predatory hunger,

“His eyes had a melancholy, consumptive sheen, so Pinto was compelled to consider his widening pupils, until the Rittmeister averted his gaze, a breath too late.”

The novel’s various languages serve as a veil, a diversion from the intensity that must thrive in the shadow of obscurity. They conceal much more than zeal, though. Pinto’s use of “jetzer hara” in reference to his nature carries the stigma enforced by his father’s religion, seeing as the term alludes to an inclination to do evil in Judaism. 

Whether the words ring of honesty or ridicule when bouncing around Pinto’s mind is not entirely clear. In a way, this speaks to the mystification of language itself,

“Jetzer hara has taken over, and Pinto has no thoughts that are not dizeu; his pata hardens.”

The beauty of the prose often materializes as a sucker punch, both heartfelt and utterly devastating. An example is when Pinto murmurs that he did not sleep well because he “spent the night listening to [Osman’s] beating heart.”

By contrast, addiction is subtle until it’s not; entirely controllable until it crushes its host. Its introduction offers a taste of something indigestible, a roughness that spreads to consume the contents of The World And All That It Holds

When Pinto finds himself on the front line, his senses hone in on the barabrity and filth of his circumstances. But his mind also seeks out Osman’s tenderness, focusing on the desire and love reshaping him in the unlikeliest of places.

The contrast between the two seems all the more intense when carried by the lulling lyricism of Heman’s prose, “fast asleep as if his throat had been cut.”

It conveys the enslavement of the day-to-day, Pinto’s quiet acceptance of “the boredom and blistered feet and infections and bullet-torn flesh,” the ensuing devising of “ways to unstick themselves from the molasses of time.”

Matters of nationality and identity creep to the fore, what with Pinto being a Jew and Osman a Muslim. Similarly, religion rules alongside death, often serving as a way of seeking order in the entropy of war,

“God is always the same, yet people have to change, and they all eventually change from alive to dead.”

Immense hunger bleeds into this bleak outlook, accentuating Pinto’s wish for everything to revert back to a “shape that might make up for everything that vanished forever.” His experience of grief extends both to the past and the acute present, speaking to his lost youth and the dread of losing the one who’s come to make up his whole world.

The mix of emotional and physical devastation in the novel is both shattering and language-constricting. Self-expression can no longer be taken for granted as Pinto scrambles to make sense of the annihilation he witnesses,

“Kopfschuss is a bullet in the head. Herzschuss must be a bullet in the heart. Mundschuss killed Blum.”

And from the great unknown — “la gran eskuridad” that swallows Pinto whole — emerges no one and nothing, “not one” except for Osman. Their connection defies both lust and love. It is transcendent and world-building. It alone justifies the ache of persevering.

And so, permanence becomes something baffling, and impermanence the very thing forging a new reality. This lack of synchronicity extends to time, which seems to both envelope Pinto and abandon him entirely, removed from consequence as it is,

“In that moment Pinto remembered a future in which Osman would be elsewhere, away from him, as he had not been since they’d met.”

But what dominates the pages of The World And All That It Holds, and what continues to enforce a measure of sanity, is the fierce affection between the two men. It defies sickness and horror, forever installing in them a sense of place, the very thing they have been dispossessed of by the erupting war,

“To the place my heart loves, there these feet lead me, to the place inside him, to his soul.”

What ensues is a metaphysical glide through time and space. Responsibility clashes against continued woe, allowing fatherhood to emerge as the unexpected, yet all-consuming calling of the body.

Consequently, events are not recounted in a linear fashion. Instead, they operate as blanks and outlines to be filled in at a later date. To add to the impression of displacement, the narrator often takes a step from the immediacy of the events, allowing for some perspective and context to slip in.

As we learn, The World And All That It Holds is essentially a story within a story, “I sat there fantasizing about [Rahela] appointing me as the writer who would tell her story, successfully negotiating the acceptable amounts of narrative embellishment and restructuring.” 

It can even be perceived as fairly unreliable and unduly romanticized. But, somehow, it appears all the more compelling because of this elusiveness.

Likewise, the spirit — understood both literally and symbolically—dominates the spreading impermanence of life. The tether between the two lovers is as stinging as it is reassuring, forever renegotiating the space it takes up in the men’s lives.

Every lull is erotic, every acceleration of the plot a sensory and horrifying delight. Emotion rises off the page, demanding to be felt in all its physicality. 

What makes The World And All That It Holds that much more intriguing is its use of floating dialogue. The speaker is always intuned, never misconstrued. And so, conversation serves as introspection, speech as deed, and thought as manifestation.

This allows for one’s presence to unstick itself from the body. Where loneliness threatens, the world housed by the mind responds. And religion, that faithful tether to hope, speaks plainly to a spirit depleted by loss,

“God was invented by the lonely people, by those who could not bear to think that no one would ever care about them, spend a thought on their loneliness.”

The idea of hope, of aspiration not for oneself but a loved one, makes itself more and more felt. It serves as an uplifting contradiction that seems to simultaneously strip the world of coherence and rebuild it,

“The only memory that matters is of the world that is yet to come.”

What we gain from this accumulation of stormy dispositions is an increasingly visceral depiction of the strife that Pinto faces, of fear and misery, with its “incredible” stench and “all the sweat, shit, and who knows what flowing out, greasing the streets.”

What grabs our attention is the use of repetition as a way of seeking balance, entering a pensive state, or maybe reaching for the grounding markers of faith. It always appears in reference to conviction, “You cannot fathom my rules.” And yet, at some point, it seizes to suggest any of the world religions, as the world is no longer, and the only faith that remains is in a love made unholy by its persistence.

As Hemon guides us from one end of the new world to another, we see the spread of misery and despair that walks hand in hand with Man. The horrors of the Second Sino-Japanese War in Shanghai are unspeakable, and so Pinto reverts back to the only peace he knows, which he finds in all that is formless and compulsive.

Love, that relentless tune, haunts him. It defies existence; it jeers at physicality. It is both a pursuit of home and a torturous reminder of one’s displacement in the world. It alone can subvert the real and the unreal, making The World And All That It Holds truly indelible. 

The World And All That It Holds will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on January 24, 2023.


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