Escape from History

Nowhere Man

by Aleksandar Hemon
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 242 pp., $23.95

Aleksander Hemon
Aleksander Hemon; drawing by David Levine

Aleksandar Hemon was born in 1964 in Sarajevo to parents of Ukrainian and Bosnian Serb descent. Apart from a brief, mandatory stint in the Yugoslav army, he spent his childhood and youth in that city. At the University of Sarajevo he studied literature and played in a band. Later he worked as an arts journalist and film critic, and he published two short stories in little magazines. Hemon was granted a cultural visa to the United States in 1992, and he traveled across the country as part of a cultural exchange program. He was supposed to go home May 1; that day the Yugoslav army began shelling Sarajevo. Hemon, who spoke only rudimentary English, received asylum from the US government and settled in Chicago, where he supported himself with a series of menial jobs: dishwasher, house-cleaner, sandwich-maker, Greenpeace canvasser. By night he watched CNN and read American novels with the help of a dictionary.

Hemon was twenty-eight at the time. By the age of thirty-one he had begun to publish stories in his adoptive language. The first result of this extraordinary self-education, a collection of stories entitled The Question of Bruno, appeared in 20001 and was chosen as one of that year’s best books by The New York Times, Esquire, the Los Angeles Times, and the Voice Literary Supplement. Hemon’s second book, Nowhere Man, appeared late last year.

In the novella “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls,” the centerpiece of The Question of Bruno, readers meet Jozef Pronek, a young rock critic who is completing a tour of the US when the Serbs attack his native Sarajevo. Stuck in Chicago, Pronek plunges into the self-loathing grief that Freud called melancholia—what today we might call survivor’s guilt, except in Pronek’s case the killing isn’t a memory. It’s going on before his eyes on the evening news:

He would watch CNN footage of people with familiar faces crawling in their own blood, begging the unflinching camera for help; people twitching and throttling as their stumps spurted blood; people who were trying to help them dropping like an imploded building, shot by a sniper; and he would know that was the end of their lives—that they would never touch a doorknob; never have their toes hurting in uncomfortable shoes; never flush a toilet; wear a condom; eat lettuce; suffer. Pronek realized that he had never known what death was.

One night Pronek thinks he catches a glimpse of his father, running from a sniper. “He began hating himself,” Hemon writes, “because he was selfish, whatever he happened to be doing, just by being alive.” Watching Pronek isolated in his self-loathing, too distraught to hold down a job, or hold on to his American girlfriend, the unnamed narrator of “Blind Jozef Pronek” remarks, “We wish he had approached us then, we would have helped him.”

Hemon’s urge to help his alter ego,…

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