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Escape from History

Nowhere Man

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

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, to untangle Pronek from the catastrophe of the war he missed, holds Nowhere Man, Hemon’s second book, together. It is a complicated construction: three loosely connected main chapters, “Yesterday,” “Fatherland,” and “The Soldiers Coming,” and four shorter pieces, told from two separate points of view. Together they cover Pronek’s first twenty-five years, before the war, and the life he makes for himself afterward in Chicago. Most of these are narrated by an unnamed Bosnian immigrant (or, possibly, a chorus of Bosnian immigrants) roughly Pronek’s age and in roughly his situation—for our purposes, Hemon himself. The other narrator is a young American academic who comes to know Pronek briefly before the war.

Hemon’s publisher calls Nowhere Man a novel, and the description seems fair enough by today’s standards, but because of the obvious factual similarities to Hemon’s own life, and because the novel exists, just as obviously, to do what Freud called the work of melancholia—the work of detaching oneself from one’s losses: in this case the lost home that Hemon and Pronek share—Nowhere Man has the force of an autobiography that happens to be written in the third person.

Describing Pronek’s fourteenth summer, Hemon comes close to explaining his attitude toward his subject:

It might strike the reader that the life of this hero is not particularly exceptional, for many a boy indulged in fantasies in which the readiness of unknown women to make passionate, yet educational, love to a gangly youngster was directly proportionate to the impossibility of such a scenario ever occurring. What young man or woman did not vacillate between the conviction that no one in their right mind would touch this body and the insight into one’s own implausible, youthful beauty? Is there anybody who doesn’t remember the first shy moments of caressing someone else, the moments when all the idiotic pornographic fantasies perish in the face of a person who has a voice and a smell and a particular imperfection—say, a birthmark shaped as a crescent moon—visible only as your lips slide down her neck, as you feel the growl of pleasure in her body? The reader must remember, before judging the commonness of such recollections, that they gain in value when that person is dead (as is the owner of the crescent moon, killed by a shell in 1993). Your memories become fantasies if they are not shared, and your life in all its triviality becomes a legend.

To look back at one’s younger self and see an ordinary guy, both more lovable and less special than that younger self could understand—to do justice to one’s own triviality—is the opposite of what most so-called autobiographical novelists do, but that is the point here. To rescue this triviality from tragic legend, to acknowledge the destruction of what one loved without falling into registers of grief, is serious work.

The long chapter devoted to Pronek’s life in Sarajevo before the war is the best part of the novel. “Yesterday” (as in the Beatles song) is a parody: a mock-epic portrait of the artist as a young man. It is also the most convincing evocation of a happy childhood I’ve read in a long time, and it contains sentences so charming that they commit themselves to memory. Those, for instance, that describe Pronek’s grandmother, whom Pronek’s parents import from the countryside when he is a toddler to help take care of him. “She provided milky meals in the morning,” Hemon writes:

she administered afternoon walks and supervised playground activities. She protected him from unmerited (and merited) pushes and punches. This might have prevented Jozef from developing lasting playground friendships—upon Grandma Natalyka’s merciless fillip or bloodcurdling shout, other kids, backed by much feebler forces (adolescent distant cousins; baby-sitters reading romances; simply nobody), kept their distance. There he is: digging a meaningless hole in the sandbox with a plastic shovel misshapen by his anger, while everybody else is gathered on the other end of the sandbox, filling up one another’s buckets with sand. And there is Grandma Natalyka, looming on the horizon like a battleship, furiously knitting another warm sweater for little Jozef.

Hemon has told interviewers that he studied Nabokov’s Lolita as a handbook when he was teaching himself to write English. Some of the lessons he learned from Nabokov are plain in this passage: to alliterate; to make a big deal out of choosing the flashy mot juste; in general, to dramatize his own relationship to the language—even to tease his readers, as a tightrope walker pretends to lose his footing, with a consciously unidiomatic turn of phrase. Reviewers have tended to dwell on Hemon’s Nabokovian swagger, but what is more quietly impressive about a passage like this one is the way it takes for granted that community of the playground. Without loosening his focus on Pronek and Grandma Natalyka, Hemon suggests a periphery teeming with other minds, bound together, along with the reader, in a common moral universe: the little kids clamoring fairly or unfairly for vengeance, the second and third cousins called in from their soccer games as reinforcements, the baby-sitters reluctant to put down their reading, all the wished-for protectors behind that “simply nobody.”

At its best, as in “Yesterday,” Hemon’s prose always carries this suggestion of shared space, this quiet refusal to sort the novel into mechanical minor characters and a magically spied-on central consciousness. The refusal isn’t unique to Hemon. If any impulse seems to have distinguished the last ten years of novel-writing, it is a desire to reclaim omniscience in the voice of a personal narrator and to make the reader take for granted this narrator’s knowledge of the characters he or she describes.2 Still, the insistence on seeing minor players as ends in themselves helps to explain Pronek’s lack of prominence in his own story, and the relative prominence of characters like Grandma Natalyka (who appears and vanishes within a page and a half) or Pronek’s parents, who in a few short scenes come more fully to life than the closely watched friends and girlfriends of the novel’s American section. The loss of this space, this taken-for-granted community which disappears with the war, haunts the novel more than any single character’s death.

The ostensible subject of “Yesterday” is Pronek’s growth into a writer by way of rock ‘n’ roll, but its real subject is the city in which that vocation made sense. A dream of Western culture—post-ideological, hedonistic, in which the central texts are meant to be performed in glory, not read—suffuses Hemon’s Sarajevo long before the pivotal moment when the fourteen-year-old Pronek buys a Beatles songbook.

Pronek’s seduction by Western pop begins in fifth grade, the day he comes home from English classes at the local Young Pioneers center singing foreign songs:

Those songs were so much unlike the songs the elder Proneks liked to sing: the quiet Bosnian songs, sung in the spirit of calm realization that life would pass like spring bloom and that there was nothing but infinite darkness in the end. [His parents] demanded to know what in the world was Jozef singing about. At first he refused to divulge the real content of the songs, but then started to make it up, enjoying his power over his ignorant parents. Thus “Yellow Submarine” was about a balloon that wanted to be free…and “Everybody Loves Somebody (Sometimes)” was about a burglar who stole from rich old people and gave to poor kids.

In Hemon’s Sarajevo the struggle between East and West has simmered down to a negotiation between naughty children and bemused parents while ethnic or religious differences simply never arise. This scene, in other forms, is a staple of American Jewish fiction of fifty years ago—it is a scene of assimilation, in which children always lead the way. Scenes like this one, and there are several in “Yesterday,” are in poignant contrast to Pronek’s later, stumbling adjustment to America—the real America, not the America he dreamed of touring with a band—because they unfold in the context of a family life that would strike most Americans as unusually forthright and transparent. So the novel’s American narrator (about whom I’ll have more to say) envies the routineness of little Jozef’s spankings, which take place, by mutual understanding, after the eve-ning cartoons. Like the playground, the Pronek family is a believable paradise of hard knocks and underlying shared common sense.

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    Obvious examples are Dennis Cooper’s Guide (1994), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Michel Houellebecq’s Les Particules élémentaires (1999), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), and Jeffrey Eugenides’s two novels, The Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002). These are very different books, but they share a similar nonchalance toward the question how a narrator knows other minds—a question that until recently seemed more or less indispensable to the philosophical work that novels do.

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