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.
“Sarajevo in the Eighties was a beautiful place to be young,” Hemon tells us, at the moment when Pronek—having quit his childhood accordion lessons and taken up the guitar—starts performing in local nightclubs:
I know because I was young then. I remember linden trees blooming as if they were never to bloom again, producing a smell I can feel in my nostrils now. The boys were handsome, the girls beautiful, the sports teams successful, the bands good, the streets felt as soft as a Persian carpet, and the Winter Olympics made everyone feel that we were at the center of the world. I remember the smell of apartment-building basements where I was making out with my date, the eye of the light switch glaring at us from the darkness. Then the light switch would go on—a neighbor coming down the stairs—and we would pull apart.
This is the achieved nostalgia of “Yesterday,” which rates Pronek’s modest musical success, alongside the shared municipal pride in a winning team or in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, as something missed for its own sake—without reference to the war; without reference to the problem of Pronek’s, and Hemon’s, having escaped by accident and survived. The war hangs over this passage, and the rest of “Yesterday,” but at a distance; without it there would be no novel and the smell of those basements and linden trees would not work the way they do, as talismans to hold the end of their world at bay.
I’ve dwelled on this achievement, of remembering Sarajevo, because it seems to me the central accomplishment of Nowhere Man. The after is less vivid than the before: nothing in America measures up, on the page, to life in Yugoslavia. Nothing replaces those small, tight connections that are Hemon’s most successful subject. Although we watch Pronek stumble into a love affair with a fellow Greenpeace-canvasser, whom he does not begin to understand, and into equally blind friendships with other Americans, none of these relationships changes or reveals him. Hemon tries to steer Pronek out of his isolation, into comic collisions with other characters, but he soon runs out of anything important to laugh at.
In general, Hemon’s Americans are more vital and credible the closer they come to caricature. A couple reading the Bible together in an airport bar in tears; a pot-smoking history grad student who asks Pronek, “What’s with you people? Why can’t you just chill out?”; the ex-Marine owner of a house-cleaning service who says, “I got four words for you: cleanliness, loyalty, shiny surfaces, privacy”—these clichés of Americanness burst into life when Pronek encounters them in the earlier “Blind Jozef Pronek” of the stories, but in Nowhere Man the culture shock has worn off, replaced by weary forbearance, and the satire begins to go rancid. By showing us some pretentious jottings in the diary of the Greenpeace girlfriend, for instance, Hemon suggests that she’s shallower and stupider than Pronek thinks. This provokes the awkward question how much we ought to care when their affair lands on the rocks, and in general how much interest we should take in the earnest Greenpeace activists and other characters who float in and out of Pronek’s American afterlife. I’m not sure Hemon himself knows the answer to this question.
It may be that these doldrums are simply built into the book Hemon set out to write. Whether deliberately or by instinct, he limits the damage by bringing Pronek’s story to a near halt in 1991, postponing Pronek’s exile until the last third of Nowhere Man, and devoting the long middle chapter, “Fatherland,” to the last summer before the war.
Pronek spends the summer of 1991 as a visiting student in Kiev, half in and half out of his old life (although he doesn’t know it), and observed at the peak of his manhood by his American roommate, a shy, mournful, defeated Shakespeare scholar ironically named Victor Plavchuk. The Pronek whom Victor describes—strapping, full of animal spirits, reduced to soulfulness by the gaps in his English—is only dimly recognizable as the hero of “Yesterday” or the displaced person of “The Soldiers Coming.” He is charming and charmed, bathed in the light of Victor’s adoration. When the first President Bush pays an official visit to Ukraine, it is—naturally, according to Victor—Pronek whom he singles out for a photo opportunity. When the Soviet generals mount their August coup, it is Pronek who leads Victor into the heart of the demonstrations erupting on Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s main avenue.
“Fatherland” is less about this heroic, legendary Pronek than about Victor himself. He is, from the point of view of technique, Hemon’s most ambitious parody: the artist as Jamesian failure, the man who has missed his chance to live and is condemned to mourn it forever. “There was a time,” Victor confesses, ten years after that summer,
when I thought it noble not to know where one was heading. I thought that being lost meant being in mid-chapters of one’s own Bildungsroman, but then I became very lonesome climbing up the steep, craggy cliff of self-knowledge. I kept reading and thinking, and thinking and reading, and drinking, in order to figure out what life was all about, and whose fault it all was, before I even started living. Then I went to graduate school. I learned that desire was important, in a class populated by lonely, insecure searchers who sought people like themselves in literature written centuries ago…. Anyway I followed the path of desire, but it led me nowhere, and I roamed and wandered, and became a typical American young existential tourist—Jack Kerouac was my travel agent. And for reasons I could not fully understand at that time, I had a terrifying feeling that sitting in front of Jozef, answering questions he had no right to ask, I had reached the terminus.
The terminus is Victor’s gathering awareness that he is gay and, specifically, that he must either reveal his love to Pronek (although he knows it won’t be returned) or else live with the regret of keeping quiet. As the tone of this passage suggests, he is too weak to make the choice: it gets made for him when his father dies unexpectedly and he is forced to go home. He never sees Pronek again (except on TV, amid a crowd of Greenpeace protesters “chanting some nonsense in front of a nuclear facility”).
Perhaps because Victor is Hemon’s first character to speak in the voice of an American—or because Hemon has given him all the snobbery, blindness, and sentimental yearnings of a Nabokov villain without the root cause: that ice in the heart—he seems at times to elude Hemon and lead him out of his depth. Usually in tiny ways: Victor’s habit of quoting Shakespeare, for instance, is less funny—or believable, from the author of a dissertation entitled “Queer Lear”—than Hemon seems to think. And is Kerouac really the writer Victor would name as his travel agent? Doubts like these arise too often for Hemon to have planted them on purpose, I think. Worse, Hemon loses track of Victor’s movement toward self-awareness. After a while Victor’s prudishness starts to feel like a gag. So does his queasiness toward his one, unfortunate female lover, which stands out in a novel that is otherwise self-consciously reticent on the subject of grown-up sex.
What is convincing about Victor is his stuntedness, a transposed, comic version of the grief that hounds Pronek. Hemon takes pains to invent similarities between Victor and Pronek, to suggest that they are equally created in his image. Like Hemon himself, each is Ukrainian on his father’s side. Like Hemon (or the narrator whom I have been calling Hemon), each suffers from a nightmare “of being someone else, with a little creature burrowed in my body, clawing at the walls inside my chest.” This nightmare of self-disgust and doubleness, from which Hemon rouses himself on the first page of Nowhere Man, returns periodically throughout the novel, even in its last sentences:
I lay in the darkness, awake, paralyzed, biting the knuckle of my index finger, waiting for the evil to hatch out of the furry lump pulsating with life, and come right at me, and it did. It is right inside me now, clawing at the walls of my chest, trying to get out, and I can do nothing to stop it. So I get up.
Victor calls Pronek “the simple me, the person I would have been had I known how to live a life,” but of course there are no “simple me”s outside the imagination of a novelist like Henry James or of a narrator like Hermann Karlovich in Nabokov’s Despair. Hemon is not such a novelist or such a narrator. Victor, Pronek, and he are all struggling to awake from the same bad dream.
It is only in the eponymous coda to Nowhere Man, which I have just quoted, that Hemon delves into the meaning of his nightmare and gives it free play. This coda, which is a short story, concerns a new character: a spy named Evgenij Pick, alias, among other things, Joseph Pronek, whose cronies at one time or another include a Count Victor Plavchuk and a Detroit gangster named Alex Hemmon. (Conversely, in “Fatherland,” Victor overhears two drunks discussing “one Evgenij, whose distinguishing feature was that he was simultaneously a filthy bastard and the kindest man alive.”) Pick’s picaresque tale, full of reprised motifs from earlier parts of the novel, is clearly meant as a comment on the rest of the book. Aside from “Yesterday” it is the most assured section of the novel. It is also the most enigmatic, and critics who admire Hemon have tended to ignore it or else to minimize its strangeness—at the expense of the novel, it seems to me.
Born in 1900, the son of a Cossack officer and a Jewish woman who has been raped and dies in childbirth, Pick serves in the Russian army during World War I, then opportunistically joins the revolution in St. Petersburg, where he speechifies and plunders his way up the Party ladder. His success as a revolutionary earns him entry to drama school and the military academy in Moscow, followed by diplomatic posts in Afghanistan and Turkey; eventually he is sent to Shanghai, where he sits out World War II, posing as a White Russian refugee and reporting to the Kremlin on the exile com- munity—meanwhile furnishing British intelligence with largely fantastical reports on the Comintern in China. “All of it is delivered in a reasonable, measured, yet mesmerizing tone,” Hemon tells us:
all the accents are in the right places, and the ephemera (useless characters, pointless details, frequent digressions concerning his own unremarkable, woeful self) is effectively scattered throughout Pick’s narrative, providing the inevitable randomness of common existence, the sloppiness necessary for the illusion of a real, uncontrollable life. His briefers, all from good families and universally educated at elite British universities—evidently intellectually superior to an effusive Russian vagrant—cannot have enough of his stories. They promptly and passionately send Pick’s confession to the Foreign Office, followed by a note from the British ambassador, Sir William Senson, saying that “while [the accuracy of Pick’s information] cannot be guaranteed, it has the ring of truth.”
The ring of truth is a golden one, it seems, for with the generous British reward and the profits from small but lucrative deals with his acquaintances, Captain Pick is able to open his own theater in Shanghai.
In its techniques and effectiveness, Pick’s confession sounds very much like “Yesterday.” Surely this is no accident, and I don’t think it is literal-minded to see Hemon’s readers in those smug English briefers whom Pick takes in, or to equate his “generous British reward” and “small but lucrative deals” with Hemon’s well-publicized success here and abroad. (To my eye, the jacket illustration—based, according to the publisher, on “an archival photo of Evgenij Pick”—looks suspiciously like Hemon’s author photo.)
Pick is a scoundrel, and as his tale unfolds, Hemon adds one crime after another to his name: Pick pimps, murders, smuggles drugs and arms, cuts deals with the Gestapo and the Japanese, sends untold fellow Russians to their death. But his big sin is to have escaped from historical catastrophe and profited from it—to have sold his escape in the form of fiction; to have done, in other words, what Hemon has done. His other sins follow from this. Whether or not Aleksandar Hemon, the man whose face I see in the picture of Pick, actually carries to this day the irrational burden of such a sin, Hemon the writer is guided by tact or intuition to represent it as a necessary condition of his art.
May 15, 2003
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. ↩