A Non-review by
is a curious quote at the opening of Aleksandar Hemon's
novel, NOWHERE MAN; Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002. But before
going there, it should be noted that a collection of stories
with a similar title was scheduled for print in 1992, in
Bosnia, but then the Serbs attacked and such luxuries as
book publishing were put on hold. I believe that collection
morphed into the present novel. Okay, so, a foreign writer
made a few adjustments. But is this a re-write or a makeover?
The answer is probably, a bit of both, but the amalgam,
I think, is not, as billed, a novel.
Aleksandar Hemon left Sarajevo for Chicago on a cultural
visa, but received political asylum because of the ethnic
cleansing back home. He began to write in English five years
later, in 1995. So why isn't NOWHERE MAN a novel? Well,
partly because of its complicated history, and partly because
of a concept of time somewhat explained in the opening quote
which ends: "Yet what is to be done with events that
have no place of their own in time; events that have occurred
too late, after the whole of time has been distributed,
divided and allotted; events that have been left in the
cold, unregistered, hanging in the air, errant and homeless?"
You mean like the shower I took this morning? I'll cut
the sarcasm. But fasten your seatbelts, we're entering a
time machine and that quote is our ticket in. Huh? (By the
way, I should mention here that the title, NOWHERE MAN,
comes from the Beatles' tune.) Well, the post-apocalyptic-second-coming-sounding
quote doesn't translate into much. To me it sounds contrived.
I mean, what's all this about the whole of time having been
allotted and distributed? By whom? When? Where was I?
You have probably guessed we are in anti-hero land; plotless,
arc-less, not quite pointless land. The character we follow
is Jozef Pronek. We first meet him in an English language
class in Chicago where a man from Sarajevo recognizes him
from their rough and tumble neighborhood in the old country.
We then zoom into that childhood, starting with the thirty-seven
hours Jozef's mother endured in labor, up to his forming
a teenage band that plays Beatles tunes and sappy songs
written by Pronek himself. We learn that Jozef's Grandma
Natalyka, whose armpits smelled of "cinnamon and sauerkraut
brine," was brought in to tame the toddler while his
parents were at work. Grandma dies in her sleep on the bed
next to Jozef, bringing on an early awakening of consciousness,
"Everything in the room was perfectly still, as if
it all went away with Grandma and only left its shapes behind."
We are with him when he loses his virginity, and as the
trouble starts, the war that ripped Sarajevo and Yugoslavia
We don't find out if Pronek is Muslim or not. The question,
having been raised, soon becomes beside the point, like
so many other would be points, raised then dropped. Anyhow,
Jozef leaves Sarajevo before the siege, goes to the Ukraine,
invited there on a cultural junket because his father is
Ukrainian. Zoom, we are in Kiev where a likewise invited
American, Victor Plavchuk, with a likewise Ukrainian-born
father, falls in love with Pronek. Here we learn of Pronek's
exotic handsomeness, his mile deep almond eyes, his lanky
nowhereness. Through the American we see that Pronek is
without direction, smart, iconoclastic. My kind of guy,
the doomed sort.
Zoom, we are back in Chicago where our erstwhile anti-hero
is having a tough go of it finding work, keeping a roof
over his head, his spirits afloat. Back home, Sarajevo is
going under. Snipers shoot at civilians from the surrounding
mountains. A person can be killed going for food or water,
an old girlfriend of Jozef's has her legs blown off at the
market place. Chicago newspapers headline the war: DEFENSES
COLLAPSE IN GORAZDE; THOUSANDS KILLED IN SREBRENICA.
If all this seems confusing, time frames not chronologically
presented don't help. Events aren't necessarily self-referring,
either. Some of my crankiness comes from having had to stop
too often to figure out where the book was, time wise. Time
and incidents don't grow together. This is where the opening
quote, I think, is meant to help. It doesn't. What I am
suggesting is that a collection of stories based on Jozef
Pronek has been stitched together. I suspect the publisher
decided it was easier to introduce a new writer with a novel,
and it's not uncommon, for marketing purposes, to do this.
Is it a big deal? No, but it can make for difficulties because
the word novel sets up at least some expectations. That
said, NOWHERE MAN is an impressive work with truly excellent
writing and strong characterization, a sweetly-lost protagonist
in a deeply carved world. There is impact and there are
powerful impressions, smells in particular, throughout.
Back to the text. Chicago, Pronek falls for Rachel, his
training partner on the canvassing job he's gotten with
Greenpeace. He falls for girls easily, but Rachel manages
to cut through an isolation so deep it almost has to topple
and crash over everyone, like so many eggs off a high shelf.
Pronek and Rachel getting to know each other: "'You
know,' Pronek said wistfully, 'I think that everywhere there
is the home, you have the puddle where you see when it rains.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean you look through the window when you don't know
if it is raining and you have your puddle where you can
see the rain.'
'Yeah, I see. That's nice.'
'I had one in Sarajevo in front of my house.'
'I like that,' Rachel said."
And to complicate things, there are different narrative
voices. The discovery of Jozef at the English language class
is told first person by his boyhood neighbor. This narrator
becomes omniscient in the next part when he tells us of
Pronek's growing up. He passes the baton when Pronek leaves
for Kiev: "But that is a different story, and I have
never been in Ukraine--someone else will have to tell that
part of his [Pronek's] life. He met a woman he would one
day visit in Chicago, thus reaching the place where he would
live unhappily ever after and where I would recognize him
in a classroom."
Back to Victor Plavchuk, Jozef's assigned roommate in Kiev.
Victor is taken with Jozef, though insists he is not gay.
Pronek becomes almost tangential to Victor's feelings about
him. Victor: "I am forced to own up to the fact that
I had never had--and then lost it again--what Jozef had:
the ability to respond and speak to the world." When
Victor is done narrating, we zoom to Chicago again, now
1995. We don't know whose voice tells this leg of Pronek's
life, maybe the guy from parts one and two, but it's the
meatiest section of the book and perhaps the most satisfying.
But then, somehow, we are in Shanghai and it's 1900. This
is where I threw up my hands. I went back to the opening
quote and asked aloud what had been brewing inside, is this
a novel? The last section involves a charismatic, opportunist
Russian, Evgenij Pick, who has fled the revolution to Shanghai
in the company of nobles escaping for their lives. There
is mention of an Evgenij earlier, on the train to Kiev,
where Victor overhears two drunk Russian's arguing over
a scapegrace called Evgenij. Victor concludes, after listening
in, that he will never be as alive as this mysterious Evgenij.
Victor is self-defeating, but who cares? How did we get
If there is a wholeness to this oddly woven work, it is
lost on me. The so-called unregistered events, outside designated
and allotted time, never quite coalesce. They aren't meant
to, but the concept of errant time used to form a novel
seems subtle, bordering on precious. It turns out the author
intends a next book on, guess what, Shanghai. It was nice
of him to give us a trailer at the end of this one. I think
the original idea of a story collection, NOWHERE MAN: THE
PRONEK FANTASIES, would have worked better. But NOWHERE
MAN, the novel, compels anyhow, because of the authentic
voice and because of the inconsequential yet affecting character,
©December 2002, J. Stefan-Cole