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Nowhere Man

Aleksandar Hemon's Nowhere Man (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002) is not quite a novel, and I wouldn't call it a pleasure to read. But it's one of the more substantial fictions that I've come across this year. Set in Sarajevo, Kiev and Chicago (with a detour to Oak Ridge), and comprised of narrative blocks arranged out of chronological order and related from different points of view, Nowhere Man presents a series of portraits of one Josef Pronek, a Bosnian of Ukrainian background who manages to emigrate to the United States on the eve of a war that will tear his homeland apart. Although nothing terrible happens to Josef, the book's tone is dark with human tragedy and the menace of emptiness.

Mr Hemon intensifies the menace by resorting to an unusual device: much of the book is narrated by an unidentified Bosnian whose relation to Pronek is never worked out. The opening section, "Passover," introduces Pronek only in its final pages, and because we've been following the vicissitudes of the narrator's attempt to get a TESL job, we're not sure why he singles out a guy in one of the classes to which his preliminary tour of the school takes him. Nonetheless it's soon clear that Pronek is to be our hero.

And I remembered cornering a mouse - this had happened a long time ago - in the hall of my building, after it had made the mistake of leaving its tunnels. I tried to grasp it by its tail, as it trembled in fearful rage. With the tips of my fingers I managed to grasp its tail - a rubbery tentacle - and lift it off the ground. I remembered Pronek being there, watching me, hating me for what I was doing. The mouse twitched in my hand, desperate, and I giggled, enjoying my power - there must have been some girls around too - until the mouse somehow swung itself upward and bit my palm, two little needles piercing my skin. Pronek was watching me with a smirk, as if he knew all along what would happen. I screamed and let the mouse go, and it scurried away, happy to be alive. I was gripping my right hand, trying to prevent the pain from spreading.

This is not the sort of experience that appears in fictions about American boyhood. The difference lies in the tone. With its 'rubbery tentacle' of a tail and its 'fearful rage,' the mouse is an object of disgust and contempt, a victim that by its own frailty deserves to be a victim. And it is a victim that knows how to bite back. An American writer, one feels, would infuse this episode with an air of comedy inspired by Mark Twain; only an inner-city (and thereby unrepresentative) American would charge it with the grittiness of an unkempt urban corridor. And then there is the hatred, if that's what it really is. Americans don't so casually hate one another 'for what I was doing.' The kids in Hemon's text have seen cruelties unimagined by Americans.

What cruelties? The war has not begun, and the old war, the parents' and grandparents' war, is forgotten. What we see, obliquely, is a civilization slowly falling apart.

And there were moments. Sarajevo in the eighties was a beautiful place to be young - 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 were 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 would go on - a neighbor coming down the stairs - and we would pull apart. I also remember that a thug named Nikson sold me a brick and smacked me around in front of my girlfriend. I remember that my apartment was broken into and that there were two footprints on my parents' bed. I remember the hateful moments in crowded, smoky bars, when I could not stand to look again at the faces I had known since birth. I remember the guy in the hospital bed next to mine whose thighs and ass were all cut up after a toilet bowl fell apart under him. But I choose not to think of those as important, my memories irrevocably coated in linden syrup.

Which, demonstrably, they're not. The irony of this passage pervades Nowhere Man almost as extensively as the blank ink of its type. Observe the sudden fall, which takes a second reading to appreciate, that immediately follows the mention of the Winter Olympics. Beautiful as Sarajevo might have been in some ways, it was still a city in which toilet bowls failed when in use, putting people in the hospital while giving rise to scatalogical mirth.

The foregoing recollection, which appears to belong to the same voice that narrated the first section, comes from "Yesterday," which follows. With a further reference to the Beatles, this part of the book is a little Bildungsroman, in which Josef Pronek is born, schooled, and put through his teens. The tale is a not unfamiliar story, blending the discovery of sex and romance with running a band more on zeal than talent, but it is told with such doleful humor that its subject is impossible not to care for. As Pronek gets older, however, he seems to be running out of air.

The year 1991 flew by Pronek, as if he were watching a passing train, the lit window strip rushing by in the night, and he barely able to discern the faces of people going in an unknown direction.

Providentially, two offers materialize at this time. The first takes him to Kiev for a month, on a program to learn about his Ukrainian heritage. The nameless narrator intrudes at this point to regret that he can't tell us about the trip to Kiev because he wasn't there. While we're trying to figure out why we've been told this, Pronek receives an invitation from the American Cultural Center to visit the United States, "as he was a young journalist likely to promote the values of freedom." Since Pronek's journalism has consisted solely of pretentious, unread reviews of rock music, this unexpected entrée to America seems almost miraculous, and Pronek accepts it on the spot. But flight to America will not necessarily give Pronek's life the purpose and meaning that it has lacked so far.

The plane penetrates the clouds and Pronek can see nothing. By the time the plane exits the dark wool of clouds and enters the bright starless sky, he already cannot remember what happened yesterday. The sun is blazing through the windows, so Pronek pulls down the shade.

The question of whether Pronek is half the man he used to be is postponed, for the next section, "Fatherland," takes us to Kiev. The narrator this time, an American named Viktor, is not the detached observer of the earlier sections. Pronek's roommate at the summer school, Viktor is surprised and appalled to find himself falling in love with a man for the first time. Josef is entirely unaware of this interest, which Viktor understands he must keep to himself. That doesn't rule out a couple of fantasies, however, including a passionate kiss in the middle of a crowded demonstration celebrating the failure of the 1991 coup against Gorbachev. Pronek appears, in Viktor's eyes, as sleepily appealing young animal; it is the only view of Josef that that we have from the point of view of a would-be lover. It is more than a little interesting that we're not given this picture by one of the many women in Josef's life.

The fourth section is entitled simply, "Translated by Josef Pronek." It is a letter from Pronek's childhood friend, Mirza, a law student stuck in war-torn Bosnia. Partly because of its graphic brevity, and partly because Pronek's translation is far from fluent, the letter cuts like broken glass through the otherwise placid surface of Nowhere Man.

I saw many bad things. It is hard to sleep. I saw bad things on our side. One time, I talked to on man who was our sniper and his position was on Hotel Bristol. And everyday he watched this soldier meet his woman. She would come from home and he would come from his position and they kiss and sniper man said that he thinks it is nice, you know, this love, so he watches them everyday. He can kill them, but it is nice, love. The woman was pretty. But one day she comes and stands little far away and he can see the soldier standing at normal place and she tells him with her hand to come to her, and he says no and then she calls him and then he comes to her. And the sniper man kills him. He tells me, if woman can tell him what he must do, he cannot live, so he killed him.

A scene worthy of Callot.

The next two sections, "The Deep Sleep" and "The Soldiers Coming," take place in Chicago, years after the encounter described in the first section, but there is no attempt to continue Pronek's story with any cohesiveness. "The Deep Sleep" is an episode, in which Josef, desperate for work, cajoles a detective into hiring him for one job, serving a summons on a Serbian. Pronek is to use his native language to fool the defendant into accepting service. The detective tries to make it sound simple, but Josef's anxiety makes him want to throw up, and he's completely confused when his target not only accepts the summons but insists that Josef come inside for a cup of coffee. Seeing the gun in the other man's pocket, Josef immediatel sees himself going to certain death. He can act with bravado, even recklessness, but his encounter with the bigoted Serb throws his constitutional fearfulness into high relief, and when the detective comes to the rescue, it is almost as if Pronek were being airlifted from a Bosnian atrocity. In "The Soldiers Coming," we find Pronek working for Greenpeace and falling in love with the woman on his team of door-to-door solicitors.

Rachel canvassed on the other side of the street. He could see her going up to the porch and ringing the bell, then looking around at the mailbox stuffed with magazines, at the lawns with wooden ducks and marble frogs and plastic angels and sprinkles, aluminum spiders with long green tails. He watched her head moving left and right as she spoke to the people who opened the door. Occasionally, she smiled and waved at him, walking between houses, the light diffused by yellow leaves softening the pallor of her face.
Pronek stood in front of a closed door, procrastinating, and when he rang the bell he prayed to the gods of corporate employment that nobody be home. He tried to talk about the dolphins to people who opened the door, but they stared at him with dim contempt and no interest whatever. Door after door was slammed in his face and anger accumulated in his stomach. He kicked a neon-green plastic bucket and it banged against the picket fence.

This is Pronek's America. That he finds love with Rachel gives his story a satisfying end, but his career remains unresolved, his wounds unhealed. The section climaxes in an outburst of demented rage. A mouse scurries through Rachel's apartment one night, and she wants Pronek to kill it. He won't, he can't.

The mouse was swimming in circles. Pronek felt rage leavening in his stomach, something pushing the inside of his temples, the heat swarming in his eyeballs. He stood facing Rachel, who looked at him with belligerent disgust. It became clear t him at that moment that he didn't want to be there - the thought spread out before him like a ski slope - and there was nowhere he wanted to be. He heard the mouse scraping the bucket, the horrible din. And then, with a motion of his foot that seemed incredibly slow to him, but startled Rachel, he kicked the bucket and it flew toward the wall, the water splashing and sloshing around, stray droplets sparkling. He felt the release inside - the fury deluge broke the dam in his stomach and flooded his body as the bucket smashed into the wall.

This tantrum ends in sobs, and the ghost of forgiveness, but altogether without closure. Pronek seems as lost as he was in Sarajevo in 1991.

I don't know what to make of the final section of Nowhere Man, which bears the same heading. It purports to tell the story of a real-life Russian adventurer, active in Shanghai and the Philippines before and during the Second World War. Evgenij Pick is an entertainer and impresario who lives at the Cathay Hotel. There are numerous thematic references to Pronek's story, including yet another disturbing mouse, but the connection remains somewhat adventitious. Is the unnamed narrator who announces that "In the summer of 2000, my wife and I went to Shanghai for our honeymoon" Josef Pronek? Or is it the narrator of the book's earlier parts? IProbably the latter, for Josef's English is never this proficient. I don't know what Mr Hemon is up to here, and I'm tempted to get out the Beatles' recording of "Nowhere Man" for clues. But I think not.

That Nowhere Man turns out to be a book about nowhere, with a no one - the elusive, aimless Josef Pronek - at its heart, is both an artistic triumph and an emotional letdown. The book belongs on the shelf of important accounts of the last century's horrors, but I'm not sure that it adds anything to our understanding of them. There is a final refusal to commit - to settle into certain identity, to substantiate - that makes Nowhere Man a masterpiece, so to speak, of withholding. If he stays in America, Aleksandar Hemon is going to have to work his way through the rest of his grief. (October 2003)

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