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NOWHERE MAN
ALEKSANDAR HEMON
A Non-review by
J. STEFAN-COLE

There 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?"

Other Book Reviews:

Dogwalker
- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

Palladio
- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

Atonement
- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

Godspeed
- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
-
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby
Wei Hui
Shop Talk
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel
David Markson
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

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 apart.

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 to Shanghai?

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, Jozef Pronek.

©December 2002, J. Stefan-Cole

 



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