Nowhere Man (the title inspired by a Beatle’s song, a favourite of the novel’s protagonist) is Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon’s debut novel. In six sections (seven, if you add the last one) the novel tells the story of one Jozef Pronek, a refugee from Sarajevo, Bosnia, eking out a lowly existence in Chicago, America, in a series of dead-end jobs.
Moving back and forth in time Pronek’s life-story is told by different narrators, some of whom are unidentified. The details in some of the narrations are so vivid and intimate that it is difficult to imagine them being told by anyone other than Pronek himself or the omnipresent author.
In the terrific opening section of the novel we see Pronek through the eyes of one of the unidentified narrators, a Bosnian like Pronek. The narrator has an interview for an ESL teaching job. When he is taken on a tour of the classrooms the narrator spots Pronek in a classroom, in the company of fellow Eastern Europeans, trying to learn gamely the Past Perfect, and recognizes him as the boy who was in the same school as he in Sarajevo. In subsequent sections we learn about Pronek’s childhood in Sarajevo, his adolescent romances and rebellions (in the third section of the novel, entitled Fatherland, Pronek goes to Kieve, Ukraine, the land of his ancestors, on a cultural visit, and throughout the visit remains oblivious of the secret crush another Ukrainian-American adolescent has on him), and his attempts to survive in Chicago, America, his adopted land, as he canvasses door-to-door for Greenpeace, attempting gauchely, if hilariously, to raise funds. His fellow-fundraiser, Rachel, herself a descendent of refugees, falls for him and the two move in together, but Rachel’s fatal outspokenness brings out a sudden cathartic outburst of the long-suppressed tormented anger of the drastically polite and perennially excusatory Pronek, which probably takes even him by surprise and brings about a violent end of the relationship.
The curious last section of this curious novel (entitled, like the novel, Nowhere Man) tells the story of Evgenij Pick, a Russian adventurer and shyster, who lives by his wits in occupied Shanghai during the Second World War. The character of ‘Captain’ Pick might have been based on a real life character called Evgeny Mihailovich Kojevnikoff, a Latvian, who led a colorful life in Shanghai and became a Japanese collaborator during the occupation of Shanghai.
With Jozef Pronek we are firmly in the anti-hero territory. At one point in the novel, when asked whether he is a Muslim, Pronek replies that he is complicated. But he is not, really; he is a simple bloke who is unwittingly caught in the whirlpool of events in the Balkans beyond his control (and, perhaps, comprehension), and finds himself washed up in Chicago, America, carryingout hand to hand combat with the language of the natives. Although it is not clarified in the novel, Pronek, with his Ukrainian ancestry, is probably not a Muslim. He consider himself a Bosnian; he has Muslim friends (in the company of one of whom he even forms a band that destroys Beatle’s songs, in his adolescent years in Sarajevo); and, not surprisingly, his sympathies appear to lie with his fellow Bosnian Muslims rather than the Serbs, who are viewed as aggressors. He goes to Ukraine, the land of his forefathers, but he doesn’t belong there; and he clearly does not belong in America despite his heroic efforts where he is less at ease than the Pope in a Vegas bar. Pronek is truly a nowhere man. He is like a leaf going wherever the wind will take it, without direction. But it is like this for him because he is the victim of circumstances. In other times, in another reality, things might have turned out differently for him and he would never have left Sarajevo. But that was not to be. Yugoslavia imploded after the death of Marshal Tito and war arrived in Sarajevo.
The horror of the bloody civil war in Bosnia, the infamous four-year siege of Sarajevo by the forces of Mladic, and the massacre in Srebenica are conveyed through newspaper headlines and television programmes, somewhat sparsely, in contrast to the richly evocative details of Pronek’s childhood and adolescence in Sarajevo. (Sarajevo in the 1980s, still under a Communist rule, the unidentified narrator says, was a beautiful place to be young. “I know, because I was young then.”) While the Bosnian war provides a silent backdrop to many events in the novel, Hemon is too skilled a novelist to allow it to dominate the narrative. Nowhere Man is not a novel about the Yugoslav civil war; it is a novel about a man who has lost his moorings for no fault of his own and because of events beyond his control.
Many first novels are autobiographical, and Nowhere Man, one suspects, is no exception. Like Jozef Pronek Aleksandar Hemon arrived in America on a cultural visit in the early 1990s and was stranded when the war in Bosnia exploded and the hostilities between the Serbian forces and Bosnian Muslim army commenced. He was granted political asylum and he lived in Chicago doing a series of lowly paid jobs. Hemon apparently taught himself English by reading Vladimir Nabokov with the aid of (one suspects a well thumbed) dictionary, and started writing in English five years later. May be it is because he learnt English late or perhaps because he has a quirky approach to language (not uncommon in other Eastern or Central European authors who write in English, whom I have read), Hemon’s writing bursts with unusual imagery, disingenuous metaphors, and unusual figures of speech. Hemon has a great eye for the quotidian, which, with his unusual gift for the language, opens up for the reader a whole new way of seeing things. Nowhere Man is quite an astonishing piece of writing, remarkable for its inventiveness. It is sharp, clever, and resourceful writing, which hits the mark most of the time.
My only concern about Nowhere Man is that it seems overstrained. The novel reads more like a series of anecdotes in the life of Jozef Pronek. Each anecdote is entertaining, at times thought provoking, too, but the anecdotes do not cohere into a whole that one can make sense of. It is a fairly compelling read, though, and you find it easy to warm up to the novel's hapless but very likable protagonist.