by Aleksandar Hemon
In Nowhere Man, Aleksandar Hemon’s second book, he has created a moving work that if it doesn’t achieve it, certainly approaches greatness. Nowhere Man recounts the adventures of Jozef Pronek, a young Sarajevan stranded in Chicago during the interregnum that spanned the dissolution of Yugoslavia and its drift into civil war. It’s similar to Picasso’s cubist paintings in that each facet bears witness to a side of reality, but in Hemon’s hands these unnamed narrators present different aspects of Pronek’s life. Throughout, the themes of the double, who is both one’s self and simultaneously another, crop up again and again. This compelling work culminates in the final section that bewilders and perplexes as it drives home the startling truth underlying this work. Many commentators have noted this work as being evocative of Nabokov, yet one could as easily locate Milan Kundera and W.G. Sebald in Hemon’s sphere of influence.
Hemon’s desperate lyricism captures the reader’s attention from the start and holds sway over it. His trenchant observations and characterizations lend gravity to an ostensibly solemn affair. The irony of Pronek’s situation, apparent at being stranded alone in Chicago at the beginning of the self-destruction of the Balkans, is captured in his observations. These observations elevate the commonplace at the expense of the unique and subvert the sincere to make way for the novel. At times funny, the narrative nevertheless manages to couple the tender coming of age of a young man amidst the dying gasp of Soviet era communism. Unsuspecting, behind the failure of communism rests a staggering nationalism and a thirst for blood.
The novel opens with a narrator, possibly Pronek’s doppelganger, finding Josef sitting in a classroom, learning to speak English. The passage each speaker must read aloud as part of their training, concerns the lives of Siamese twins. A selection that Pronek speaks and drives home the sense of belonging and estrangement. For Pronek is himself, both part of the language, culture and region that the Yugoslavian war has questioned and from which he has become estranged.
As the novel proceeds, vignettes and pieces of Pronek’s life are revealed through letters, the memories of others as well as unnamed narrators all contributing to a picture of Pronek’s life. These disparate threads reveal the multi-layered levels of Pronek’s life. They continue his studied fascination with things ephemeral as well as a scrupulous avoidance of the horrors of war ripping his country apart. Throughout the latter half of the book, characters question Pronek on his nationality, his culture or religion and receive the vaguest of answers. These questions he hates as they are reminders of the precariousness of identity, the questioning of roles and ideas heretofore unconsidered.
A crucial example of this occurs halfway through the book when Pronek, hired temporarily by a private detective, serves a summons on a Serbian named Brdjanin for child support. As they confront each other, the absurdity of their situation and the sense that something precious has been lost is revealed.
“You must understand,” Brdjanin said. “I was a fool, budala. Wife to me was whore, was born here, but was Croat. Fifteen years. Fifteen years! I go see her brothers, they want to kill me.” He made the motion of cutting his throat with his thumb stump, twice, as if they couldn’t kill him on the first try. “They Ustashe, want to cut my head because I Serb. Is war now, you brother to me now. I trust only pravoslav people now. Other people, other people.” He shook his head again, signifying a suspicion, and pulled his thumb across his throat again (154).
Gradually, Pronek begins to have a grudging acceptance for this strange state of affairs. Later on, he uses his sense of dislocation to his advantage. When he accepts a job with Greenpeace soliciting funds door to door, he allows his image and identity to change. Each new mark he encounters, each stranger he calls on, serves as an opportunity to assume a new identity.
To a young couple in Evanston who sat on their sofa holding hands, Pronek introduced himself as Mirza from Bosnia. To a college girl in La Grange with DE PAW stretching across her bosom he introduced himself as Sergei Katastrofenko from Ukraine. To a man in Oak Park with chintzy hair falling down on his shoulders, the top of his dome twinkling with sweat, he introduced himself as Jukka Smrdiprdiuskas from Estonia. To an old couple from Romania in Homewood, who could speak no English and sat with their hands gently touching their knees, he was John from Liverpool. To a tired construction worker in Forest Park who opened the door angrily and asked, “Who the fuck are you” he was Nobody. To a Catholic priest in Blue Island, with eczema and a handsome blue-eyed boyfriend, he was Philip from Luxembourg. To a bunch of pot bellied Christian bikers barbecuing on a Walgreen’s parking lot in Elk Grove Village, he was Joseph from Snitzlland (the homeland of the sniztl). To a woman in Hyde Park who opened the door with a gorgeous grin, which then transmogrified into a suspicious smirk as she said, “I thought you were someone else,” he was Someone Else (180).
In the end, Pronek becomes a more exaggerated version of ourselves, as prone to confabulation and distortion as anyone else that may be caught in this strange situation. It is only in Aleksandar Hemon’s hands that Pronek’s elastic identity undergoes an extreme process that mirrors others’ day to day existence. As Oscar Wilde remarked, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Ultimately, Nowhere Man elaborates on a theme and provides answers to questions most would rather not ask. Precisely because Hemon so deftly mixes the tragic with the comic and juxtaposes the commonplace with the noble is he able to create a work of fiction that elaborates and expounds upon the ineffable nature of human suffering. Like Joseph Conrad before him, himself an Eastern European relocated to the United States, Hemon indicates the true horror often exists deep within the chambers of the human heart. Or, as is revealed by an old man during one of Pronek’s encounters on behalf of Greenpeace, “Dolphins, no dolphins,” the old man said, “one day we will all tumble down into the pits of hell” (179).