Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Aquarium by Aleksandar Hemon

  In addition to being a bookaholic, I am also a magazine-aholic and have several subscriptions that pile up alongside the bookshelf.  One of my subscriptions (on my nook -- less clutter!) is to The New Yorker, and the current issue is "The Fiction Issue" with essays and short fiction by a wide range of authors.

  If the first piece - "The Aquarium" by Aleksandar Hemon - is any indication, this is going to be one amazing issue.  (Sadly, it is behind the website's paywall so I can only provide a link to the abstract)

  My only familiarity with Hemon to now has been his work as editor of the Best European Fiction anthologies (I have The Lazarus Project patiently waiting on the shelf, which now may be moved to the front of the pile).  Last November, as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, he was to moderate a selection of readings from the anthology and I attended; however at the beginning of the program another gentleman came to the podium to say that Hemon was not able to be there because his daughter passed away. 

  This essay is about his daughter Isabel -- only nine months old when diagnosed with a rare brain tumor -- and the progress of her illness and how it affects not only her parents but her 3 year old sister Ella.  I am not a parent so I cannot imagine the experience of seeing one child go through so much pain and suffering while trying to keep a brave face for your other child.  Ella seems wise beyond her years, keeping Isabel smiling when she is able to visit her in the hospital, while at home creating an imaginary brother;  all the while appearing to understand that things are wrong. 

  This is a heartbreaking story (Isabel only recently passed her 1st birthday when she died) but so well-written, and if you're a marshmallow like me (and, frankly, even if you're not) make sure to have a tissue or two handy if you have the opportunity to read it. 

Highly recommended.


  1. I don't read many periodicals, but the New-Yorker always entices me. It sounds like this was a great story that I should try to check out. Thanks for posting a bit about it today!

  2. I stumbled upon your blog as I was trying to find a free copy of the article so I can share it with as many people possible.

    I read in on the metro on the way back home. Before the last page I got out at my stop but just that. I stood there and read it until the very end. I didn't have tissues. So I wet-salted my cheeks until I left the station to be welcomed by one of the biggest rain showers since I came to Brussels... Completely soaked, it is only then when I started to breathe normally again.

    I agree with everything you said.
    Very well-written. Remarkable.

  3. It's strange. I too like Zibilee came across your blog when I was looking for The Aquarium article online. I read it here, in my loft in New York. And for the entire article. My whole world stopped. I think I cried through the entire second half of the story. I was racing through it to find out what would happen next.. weather it was going to end as tragically as I had feared. So I found it necessary to re-read it , more slowly. I almost felt guilty re-reading it. Something irked me that I didn't want to feel like I was being entertained out of such a sad story. As a gay 29 year old chap in New York. Frankly I can't imagine the horror of loosing a child.

    After reading it- I sent my boyfriend the following email..

    ....'I read this really amazing but quite tragic story in the New Yorker today. It was written by this father, and he talks about
    his 9 month old daughter and how they discovered she had a brain tumour..
    It's one of the most shocking and saddening stories I've read in years. I was in tears for about 20 mins.
    As the father was a writer he was able to express it all so cuttingly and the pain and grief is so visual. Like seeing

    An abstract quote from the article is :

    ''Teri and I kissed her hands and her forehead and wept through the moment that divided our life into Before and After.
    Before was now and forever foreclosed, while after was spreading out, like an exploding twinkle star, into a dark universe of pain.''

    My god , I just can't imagine their grief. I think i'd just collapse..
    Hmmm. Anyhoo, It's amazing how one stumbles across an story like that and it taints your day.
    It sticks to you like this summer heat. And follows you everywhere you go.
    You should read it. It's good to read stuff like that - it forces us all to stand back, contemplate death and in doing so we can equally and soberly contemplate life.

    The life we are so blessed to be able to live and enjoy - and embrace and hug and dance with. ''

    Well that was my experience with reading the story.. Cheerio

  4. I wish I hadn't read it. I am all too aware of my daughters' mortality, and probably spend too much time thinking of disaster scenarios.

    As Hemon notes at the end, there's not much useful to be learned. It's just something horrible that happened that no one could do anything about.

  5. As a parent of a young child, I also wish I hadn't read it. It's the kind of story that can haunt your dreams for a long time. It makes me wonder how we can ever feel safe or happy in a world where such a thing could happen. It preys on all my darkest fears. I wish Hemon had waited a bit longer to publish it. Perhaps then there could have been some hint of redemption, some glimmer of hope, in the end. As it was, I'm not sure what this story adds to our understanding of life or death, other than reminding us that horrible things can and do happen.

  6. You know, there are some things that I can safely say I wish I’d never read. Bad books, bad writing. But how anyone’s main reaction to Sascha’s extraordinary piece could be “I wish I hadn’t read that” is simply beyond me.

    It is the most powerful piece of writing I have read in a long, long, long time and one which I want to thrust into the hands of everyone I know with the advice to read it in private, and when they don’t have any plans immediately afterward.

  7. This story was really something. Every line was painful and heartbreaking and beautifully expressed. The whole time I kept thinking, "I could never go through this" - and then, of course, realizing that as a parent one has no choice; you are totally committed, every step of the way, no matter how awful the situation. My favorite part was, towards the end of the piece, when he talks about how nothing was gained or learned from the experience - that there's no strength in suffering. A brilliant, insightful story, all around. I wish it were fiction.

  8. As the parent of a child with a brain tumor, I could relate completly to this piece of writing. It managed to sum up far more eloquently than I ever could what my family has been through in the last five years. The only difference being that my child has reached five year survivorship with a prospect of a future. An absolutely brilliant, painful piece of writing that I will keep forever just to remind myself how dark those early days were.

  9. As the parent of two young children, close in age to Hemon's children, this was so hard to get through. I wanted to stop reading it several times but I couldn't. Even if I didn't have children, knowing others and of others who have almost lost or did lose a child to disease/death - this took it all out of me. Hemon paints the picture so clearly of what it's like. And, the incredible courage they all had/have. Maybe therein lies the "hope" part; that we have the ability to get through something so awful and keep going whehter we want to or not.

  10. I am an avid reader of the Newyorker. I read Hemon's piece last night. I started reading it tentatively, to see where it took me and if I'd be interested in continuing reading (there are so many things to read). However, the piece trapped me very quickly. I am father of two small children, and I think that the combination of fears that I carry with me regarding their vulnerability (or my perception of it), and the quality of the writing of the article totally disarmed me. I was more than in tears, I was crying, openly crying. I am crying now while I remember the story. Hemon's painting of the episode is so deep. He describes with astounding sensitivity what happened during those weeks, what happened to him, to them, to their other daughter Ella, to the people surrounding them. My heart shrinks and aches at imagining having to go through something like this myself. But what a talent for expression: In the middle of that ocean of unbelievably intense pain, Hemon was able to dig deep in his soul and find all these words to describe the whole thing beautifully. I am shocked by the story, but I am glad I read it. And it is not that I need to read this to appreciate how lucky I am to have healthy children, it is just that the writing is beautiful, painful but beautiful.


What do you think? Good or bad, I'd love to hear from you (but be nice - I'm sensitive!)