Aleksandar Hemon has the kind of backstory legends are made of: Boy grows up in Bosnia, becomes journalist, travels to U.S. on government goodwill tour. Lands in Chicago just as the siege on Sarajevo begins, stays, marries an American, learns English by underlining vocabulary words in Lolita. Publishes first English short story only three years after arrival. Debut book, The Question of Bruno, triggers hyperventilating comparisons to Nabokov, Kundera, and Danilo Kis. Becomes a literary darling, a little slice of old-world genius right here on American soil.
His prose is dusted with traces of Kis and Nabokov, sure, but Hemon is most impressive for being so unmistakably Hemonic. He’s as handy with the pop culture references as Dave Eggers and as nimble with the selfconsciously postmodern footnotes as David Foster Wallace. Yet Hemon remains somberly European in outlook, having come of age in a place where young people had more weighty worries than the semiotics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A few years ago he wrote that “telling and writing stories is of utmost historical and political and, fuck it, human importance.” He went on to revile “the glib cynicism of an army of freshly trained creative-writing infantry, the stories about Midwestern boredom . . . the stories about divorced academics going through their annual crisis at some godforsaken conference.” Although he hasn’t penned any stories about divorced academics, Hemon has taken on the subject of Midwestern boredom, at least as it relates to a refugee adapting to life in contemporary Chicago.
The Question of Bruno (2000) was a series of playful, semi-autobiographical tales linked by themes of displacement, identity, family lore, and immigrant life. The stories pivoted around a colorful array of spies and chameleons, like Alphonse Kauders, a Zelig-like figure who sidles through history talking dirty to Rosa Luxembourg and chugging beers with Hitler. Hemon is captivated by characters who leave a trail of contradictory myths in their wake. The most nuanced of these figures first appeared in a 75-page novella secreted inside Bruno: Jozef Pronek, an electric combination of gleeful and gloomy, cool and defenseless.
Now—back by popular demand!—Pronek reappears as the hero of Nowhere Man, Hemon’s debut novel. You may notice that the facts of Pronek’s life mirror Hemon’s: son of a Bosnian mother and Ukrainian father, a young journalist who travels to the U.S. and ends up settling here, guiltily following the destruction of Sarajevo from afar. A character who’s been through war tugs at our sympathies, but someone like Pronek is harder to pull off. He hasn’t witnessed horrors firsthand or experienced severe deprivation. Pronek’s suffering is more existential: He’s a man severed from his family and from his country, which is now unrecognizable to him.
Billed as a story collection, The Question of Bruno felt more like a loose-limbed novel; Nowhere Man, paradoxically, is meant to be a novel, but its fragmented structure is closer to a book of short stories. Hemon deploys a confusing mix of narrators, tones, and chronology. The storytellers—an unnamed Bosnian ESL teacher who knew Pronek as a kid and an American guy named Victor Plavchuck who roomed with Jozef at a Ukrainian summer school—take turns lovingly sketching the many faces of Pronek. There’s young Jozef, who fights kiddie turf wars on the streets of Sarajevo, superseded by Jozef the would-be rock star, singer in Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls. Then there’s Jozef the teenage Romeo, whose first love affair ends ignominiously, with Pronek crooning ” ‘My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean,’ trying hard not to keel over onto a used condom someone left behind, his throat tight with sorrow.” Finally we see dispiriting glimpses of Jozef in America: serving up fast food, sitting in an ESL class, canvassing for Greenpeace.
This last section nails Pronek as the “nowhere man” of the title. He seems wary of settling into any singular identity, having watched ethnic identities become death sentences back home. Everywhere he goes, Americans ask whether he is Serb or Muslim. He often stumbles over his reply: “I am complicated. . . . You can say I am the Bosnian.” While going door-to-door for Greenpeace, Pronek experiences an anonymity that simultaneously thrills and borders on psychosis. One day a woman invites him inside, saying, “I’ve been waiting for you.” Hemon writes: “He could not remember how he got here, how he had become what he was. He sat down into an embracing armchair facing an extinguished TV. . . . What would happen, Pronek thought, if he simply took off his shoes and put the slippers on his feet, swollen from walking? . . . Why couldn’t he be more than one person?”
Hemon balances Pronek’s major-league anomie with a charmingly discombobulated take on life and language. A universe of sentient objects stirs and whirs around his characters. Even the space behind the stove, where cockroaches run for safety, crackles with life: “I imagined the greasy warmth, the vales of dirt, the wires winding like roads. I imagined getting there, still clutching a crumb of skin, after almost being cut in half by something immense coming down on me.” Intensely observant, Hemon makes ordinary occurrences read like psychic disturbances.
The novel’s nonlinear structure does have flaws—the most glaring being that his narrators are not created equal. Victor, an aimless American grad student who pines after the resolutely heterosexual Jozef, offers a detailed account of their summer in the Ukraine that pales in comparison to the other chapters. It’s hard to imagine what Hemon intended to illustrate here: perhaps Jozef’s machismo, his political passion, or perhaps the cluelessness of corn-fed Americans like Victor, who’ve been insulated from history’s cruel dramas.
At one point Hemon peels himself away from Pronek’s tale to explain his authorial dilemma: “The hard part in writing a narrative of someone’s life is choosing from the abundance of details and microevents, all of them equally significant, or equally insignificant.” If you include only the big stuff, then you lose the real fabric of life, but you can’t “list all the moments when the world tickles your senses, only to seep away between your fingers and eyelashes, leaving you alone to tell the story of your life to an audience interested only in the fireworks of universal experiences.” Hemon finds a graceful equilibrium in Nowhere Man, using novelistic tricks and perfectly elastic language to create a sidelong portrait of Josef Pronek, double agent and new American, riding the currents of history.