a man without a country
Published: September 27, 2002 (Issue # 807)
A few words like "mizzle," "tubernose," "nuncle" and "minikin" soon warn the reader here that "Nowhere Man" is no ordinary book. The author has come to the United States very recently from what I guess we would still call the former Yugoslavia, and he has already been compared, in linguistic terms, to Nabokov and Conrad.
It might be better to look at "Nowhere Man" more simply as a novel, without the decorative wordplay. Aleksandar Hemon has created a fictional alter ego, a fellow named Pronek, born into Marshal Tito's made-up country, a sweet place of summer resorts "where pines gave off bounteous resin smells, when the breeze of the sea brought forth tickling sultriness, when warm bodies exuded coconut-milky sun-lotion scent." And the Bosnian capital, still poignantly untouched and alive: "They heard a hum, a gigantic hum, like the Big Bang echo. It was the sum of all the life noises Sarajevo produced, his father said: the clattering of dishwashers and buses; the music from bars and radios; the bawling of spoiled children, doors slamming: engines running." Altogether an enchanted country, a place that the reader knows - with an all-too-sickening feeling - is headed inexorably for historical disaster, chaotic civil war.
But, growing up, Pronek doesn't know. He's just a kid, meeting another kid - Mirza, who will remain his lifelong friend - the first day of kindergarten, waking up one night to find his beloved grandma dead, growing into puberty, falling in love with the Beatles, purchasing his first guitar, spending long afternoons in a series of bad garage bands, writing a slew of embarrassing songs, going on dates and finally getting lucky.
There's no way to prepare for the future if we don't know it's coming. Pronek can only grow up and live his life. He's conscripted into the army, hates it, gets out. He's part of a delegation to the Soviet Union, where he enthralls other foreign students by talking trash to the listening devices installed in every room. He takes vacations with his parents and is mildly revolted by the fact that they still want to have sex. In other words, Pronek is just a guy. But he's worth noticing, worth falling in love with, even, because he's human.
Then, the war. By a fluke, Pronek finds himself in the United States. His best friend, Mirza, remains home, caught in a ghastly nightmare: "One time I was with my friend Jasmin," Mirza writes, "and we are talking ... and one second later his head explodes like pomegranate. That second when I see it but I cannot say nothing, because the death is very fast, that second is the worst second of my life." Then Mirza goes on to tell the story of a horse who's looked at this nightmare world and had enough: At a clifftop military camp, "the horse goes slowly to the edge, we think he wants some grass there ... . He turns around, looks at us directly in our eyes, like person, big, wet eyes and then just jumps - hop! He just jumps and we can hear remote echo of his body hitting stones. I never saw anything so much sad."
When history runs its stupid steamroller over so much life, what is a surviving human to do? Pronek finds himself washed up in a Chicago flophouse; desperate, beyond desperate. But, again, what else can he do - what else can any of us do - but live out life? Like a latter-day Nelson Algren, he scurries out and across the very bottom of that city's society, an outsider, an outcast. Nothing if not brave, he works for a while as the world's saddest private detective; nothing if not hopeful, he falls in with a flock of Greenpeace protesters, drives through the U.S. Badlands ravaged by nuclear waste, notices how much the country looks like his own, then - what is there for him to do? - falls in love.
The author plays around a lot with chronology and point of view, but for all this, I think, "Nowhere Man" is still devastatingly simple. There is the world of safety, good times and peace, and there is that other world, of slaughter and suicidal horses. The one world can supplant the other at any time. Then there is a third world, of a universe of refugees, of all those who have seen the worst but still must go on. Pronek, with his new beloved, will end up heading out to Shanghai, legendary stopping place for the bereft of every continent and country. What kind of life can he expect to make for himself? The last section here is a melancholy riff upon the limited choices of the homeless, the plucky, the guileful. The merit of "Nowhere Man" rests on far more than gimmicky, literary stunts. It's a study of the human condition, sad as it is, today.
"Nowhere Man." By Aleksandar Hemon. Doubleday. 242 pp. $23.95.