Book Review: “The World and All That It Holds” — A Remarkable Achievement

By Drew Hart

Aleksandar Hemon’s latest novel is simply dizzying, filled with texture, startling imagery, language in multiple tongues (keep Google within reach!), and it succeeds in most every respect.

The World and All That It Holds by Aleksandar Hemon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 336 pp., $28.

Wasn’t it Robert Louis Stevenson who proposed that “we should all be happy as kings,” given the expansive nature of life on this planet? Well, Stevenson never met Aleksandar Hemon, or read his cinematic new novel, The World and All That It Holds, in which his assertions about happiness are sorely challenged, even when love figures strongly. The world here is many things indeed: a story of hardship with the sweep of novels by Mark Helprin or Michael Ondaatje; a romance between two men that channels Annie Proulx; episodes of stark grisliness found in the likes of Blood Meridian. Nearly a century elapses in a lyrically written, epic tale traveling the Eastern side of the globe, one so dense in detail that it might have been twice the size — you admire the economy, its concentrated 330-or-so-page heft.

The World begins in Sarajevo in 1914, where a young man, Pinto, has returned home after studying medicine in Vienna; he’s been left with his deceased father’s apothecary to run. The business isn’t far from the street where one day Archduke Franz Ferdinand is being greeted by crowds; outside looking on, Pinto becomes witness to the archduke’s assassination — which spells the beginning of the first World War. It isn’t long before Pinto is conscripted into the Austrian-Hungarian army, serving as a medic as his platoon fights off barbarous Russian Cossacks and an offensive that kills millions in Eastern Europe. (Nothing new about Ukraine these days, is there?) He befriends a gallant Muslim soldier, also from Bosnia — Osman — and a love relationship between them begins. The two save each other’s lives in combat trenches; from near starvation in prisons; from barely avoiding cholera. They hide under corpses and drink from their canteens. Their path moves eastward, first as fighters, later as refugees. Here and again suspension of disbelief might seem appropriate — these men defy certain death numerous times, and what Pinto brings with his medical knowledge is more than returned in Osman’s swashbuckling bravery — but it’s not hard to get caught up in the vigor.

The Russian Revolution brings further upheaval; Pinto and Osman find themselves in Galicia, now part of Ukraine and Poland, then in Central Asia, where Pinto is freed from captivity by Bolsheviks, recovering from war injuries and becoming a doctor in a Tashkent hospital. Osman volunteers to do undercover work for the new revolutionary regime. It takes him away, back towards the Balkans, and though his spirit and voice haunt Pinto forever, it’s the last that’s seen of him in the flesh — maybe the only plot development that could disappoint.

Author Aleksandar Hemon. Photo: Wiki Common

More fighting ensues, and Pinto becomes the guardian of a child, Rahela, who is Osman’s daughter, when her birth causes her mother’s death. The chaos of war is unending, with Pinto and Rahela narrowly avoiding different factions fighting the conflict — brigands, renegades, desperate soldiers of all stripes — becoming refugees once more, following a caravan of the displaced further east still, into the deserts of western China. Not all of their adventures are recounted  — how could they be? — though there are scenes of sandstorms that trap them in caves, run-ins with crazed mercenaries. Years pass before they reach ’30s Shanghai and international immunity.

And more years follow: in ’30s and ’40s Shanghai there may be shelter, but it’s scarcely ever safe. Pinto endures, and Rahela grows up, through the Japanese occupation, World War II, and the transition to Communist China. They move from safe houses to rooftop camps, the streets riddled with gunfire, explosions and rioting, with Pinto earning their keep by attending medically to the showgirls and prostitutes of Shanghai nightlife. That circuit takes its toll, as he develops an opium addiction (having previously been drawn to morphine as a soldier) with a Chinese man who becomes a lover until he dies at the hands of Japanese troops. Still, his love for Osman holds true, continually appearing to him in dreams and opiated visions. Rahela matures and becomes the protector for Pinto that he has been for her; though she marries a much older man who has been her teacher, meanwhile also a cruel spy, and leaves with him for the safety of Hong Kong, she nevertheless returns to attempt to help Pinto escape as well.

The World is simply dizzying, filled with texture, startling imagery, language in multiple tongues (keep Google within reach!), and it succeeds in most every respect. Violence and passion abound, rendered vividly and convincingly. And relentlessly — not much coming up for air to be had. There’s an epilogue set years later, when Rahela is elderly, that offers a very clever wrinkle you will want to enjoy the surprise of; no beans will be spilled here. (Perhaps we’ve done enough of that already?) All in all, it’s a voyage to places rarely seen or visited, and a remarkable achievement. Hemon reveals in an afterword that it was twelve years in the making, and that certainly shows.

Drew Hart writes from Santa Barbara, California.


  1. Maria Victoria del Rosario on February 14, 2023 at 12:12 am

    Just by reading the book review, I am already thrilled by how the saga goes on and ends. Can’t wait to get the book. Congratulations!

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