ALEKSANDAR HEMON’S FIRST work, a collection of stories entitled The Question of Bruno, was one of the most extraordinary and auspicious debuts of recent times. Having spoken Enghsh for only six years, since hls fight fkom Bosnia, Hemon appeared to have mastered his new language as well as Nabokov or Conrad. In his second work, Nowhere Man, a full-length novel, Hemon’s other skills are tested – above all, his abibility to sustain a story.
Nowhere Man, as picaresque and formless as a Smollett novel, follows the rambling adventures and rnisadventures of a young Bosnian 6migrC called Josef Pronek. He stumbles in bewilderment around the USA, particularly Chicago, trying to be a fund-raiser for Greenpeace, or eking out a living fi-om teachmg. All the time there remains a vast gulf of misunderstanding between himself and the comfortable, fi-iendly natives of America, who have no sense whatsoever of the things his homeland has endured. The banality of Pronek’s experiences of Western life are punctuated by remembered horrors. In the midst of conversation, Pronek suddenly and unwillingly recalls the day his mother was caught in the bombing of a street market in Sarajevo, and how she ‘wandered back, dazed, and trudged through the bloody pulp, torn limbs hanging off the still-standing counters, shell-shocked people slipping on brains. She almost stepped on someone’s heart, she said, but it was a tomato – what a strange thing, she thought, a tomato. She hadn’t seen a tomato for a couple of years.’
The disparities can be comical as well as horrific. When he’s out collecting for Greenpeace with Rachel, the American girl he’s working with (and predictably ends up beddmg), she assures a prospective donor that wolves are rare and beautill animals which need protecting. Pronek, meanwhile, is thinking of one of hs forebears who once tied hs whe to a tree in order to trap a local wolf that had been killing sheep. ‘But the poor woman wailed and wailed, her toes fieezing, and the wolf stayed away.’
Hemon’s perspective is that of a Martian poet, and hs writing renders everything rich and strange. He describes a typical all-American family as ‘sublimely beautitid, blond and suburbanly, all resembling one another as if they were a variation on the same person, a family procreated by fission rather than hckmg’. This takes the reader a long way, but in the end the architecture is lacking. Though there are moments of pathos and startling juxtapositions, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Everywhere the plight of the exile is subtly adumbrated in a melancholy fog of hints and half-hints, until the final, very moving breakdown, when the narrator steps forward to touch Josef Pronek on the cheek. ‘Calm down, I’m telling him, everydung will fall into place. Let us just remember how we got here. Let us just remember.’
Beyond that, we have a quite unexpected coda, ‘Kiev, September 1900 – Shanghai, August 2000’, which tells at breakneck speed the life story of one ‘Pick – Captain Pick’. Pick is a larger-than-life and utterly amoral character, whose fast and furious life of drink, opium, orgies, spying and murder somehow manages to entertain, horrifj, and cast a backward light on all that has gone before. It is a bravura ending, and leaves one regretting that the rest of the novel did not have such energy and verve.