In the mid-1600s, two theories competed over the true nature of the heart. English physiologist William Harvey claimed it was a pump. French philosopher René Descartes believed it to be a furnace. While Harvey won the day in the world of anatomy, Bosnian author Semezdin Mehmedinović, in his semi-autobiographical novel, My Heart, finds room for both concepts.
As the book opens, Mehmedinović has suffered a near-fatal heart attack; in fact, his doctor warns him that if “I had to come to him again, I wouldn’t leave the hospital.” A prognosis like that tends to focus the mind, and so in the book’s second section, Mehmedinović composes a sprawling letter to his son, Harun.
Part diary, part travelogue, part philosophical observation and part confessional, this epistle to Harun spans decades and continents. It includes the mundane (father and son listen to Morcheeba and Moby during a desert road trip) and the astonishing, as when Mehmedinović describes a poet friend who turned a restaurant “into a concentration camp.”
Just as Mehmedinović’s physical heart has suffered damage, his emotional one has as well. He apologizes for not having spirited his son out of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war and acknowledges their mutual PTSD as refugees, which has rendered them solitary men. They’re family, of course, but still fundamentally alone.
In the final section, we see the heart-as-furnace stoked as Mehmedinović recounts life with his wife, Sanja, after she has a stroke. As was the case with his son, he wants to bear witness and pay homage to moments whose consequences may only come into view in retrospect. He helps to fill in her memory deficits, but he also acts as an agent of selective forgetting, to shield her from reliving emotional trauma when relearning that a friend or relative has died.
The poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen once observed that “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” As we can see from My Heart, this is also how the warmth gets out.