Novelist Aleksandar Hemon's "Nowhere Man: The Pronek Fantasies"

 

By SALIL TRIPATHI      

 

  THE FOUR-year-long siege of Sarajevo, writer Aleksandar Hemon's hometown, began in May 1992 and killed some 10,000 people. When the shelling started, Mr. Hemon was in the U.S., on the last day of a cultural-exchange visit. He was due to return, to continue editing the cultural section of a Bosnian magazine, Dani. Instead, he stayed on, doing odd jobs.

  When Bosnia turned into an infernal landscape, in Chicago Mr. Hemon felt inner torment. The more he learned about rape and torture in camps like Omarska and Trnopolje, the harder he found to relate to his language. He could no longer write in Bosnian, but he hadn't mastered English yet. He taught himself English by reading Vladimir Nabokov, consulting a well-thumbed dictionary whenever complicated words turned up.

In 2000, we got the first glimpse of his exceptional gifts, through a collection, "The Question of Bruno," about a family's journey from Brittany to Ukraine, and later to the Yugoslav patchwork. The centerpiece was a long story, called "Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls."

  Mr. Hemon has now resurrected Pronek in an outstanding novel, "Nowhere Man: The Pronek Fantasies" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $23.95 [20.82 euros]), published last year in the U.S. and released in Europe in June (Picador, GBP 15.99 [22.60 euros]). In "Nowhere Man," Mr. Hemon puts flesh, blood and muscles around the bones of Pronek. "Nowhere Man" follows him from early childhood, from the moment his mother threatens to strangle him unless he gets out "immediately," ending a painful 37-hour labor, and later, where a battleship of a grandmother protects Pronek from undeserved and deserved punches in playgrounds.

  Adolescence arrived as Pronek noticed "that there were girls who didn't have to wear a swimsuit top and that there were girls who did, but for the first time that summer he realized that there was a fundamental difference between them, so much so that he got a slap on the back of his head for staring at a girl in a pink swimsuit, her nipples swollen."

After a summer in Kiev, Pronek ends up in America. As an assistant to a private eye, he has to serve court papers to an irate Serb. Pronek enters his house without realizing that the Serb is armed. Pronek's Slavic heritage protects him, and the Serb tells him not to believe the "Muslim propaganda" about the massacre in Srebrenica.

  Pronek's life is similar to Mr. Hemon's, and some critics have branded Pronek as Mr. Hemon's alter ego. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Lorin Stein has called "Nowhere Man" an autobiography written in the third person. Mr. Hemon explains: "There are overlaps in our lives, but Pronek's life is not my life. It is a parallel life, of what could have been."

  Like other Central European writers before him -- Franz Kafka, Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima and Czeslaw Milosz come to mind -- Mr. Hemon's writing has a strong relationship with history. His writing is also tactile and fragrant. We are splashed by the warm blood pouring out of a dead body, and we can feel his kitchen floor, which was so sticky "he had to unpeel his soles each time he took a step." Like Lady Macbeth, we are forced to wash our hands and feet. Likewise, he describes smelly armpits, "like wet bandages," or like "cinnamon and sauerkraut brine." Fruits, too, are important: Heads explode like watermelons, and he is fond of pomegranates, as well as words like akimbo, epiphany and peregrination. To that muscular vocabulary, add vivid imagery. Two white eggs roil in boiling water "like iris-less eyes;" "hooked towels tremble" when he closes the bathroom door.

This robustness contrasts with the sparse writing in contemporary short fiction. Mr. Hemon doesn't like such minimalism. "I don't believe in taking out adjectives. I believe in Nabokov's way. You pile them up until the object is formed completely," he said in an interview with the British newspaper Guardian three years ago.

  Sarajevo is central to Mr. Hemon's writing, but he wants us to remember a different Sarajevo. "I know because I was young then," Mr. Hemon writes. "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 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 in the darkness. Then the light switch would go on -- a neighbor coming down the stairs -- and we would pull apart."

 

Less innocently, the war intruded, pulling lovers apart: A girl Pronek has fancied loses her legs in a landmine explosion; another woman, whose neck has a birthmark shaped like a crescent moon, which Pronek discovered during an intimate moment, is killed by a shell. This is Mr. Hemon's extraordinary achievement -- of rescuing the stories of ordinary people in Sarajevo and restoring their humanity. "And now those lives are lost. Sarajevo has these absent, invisible people -- people who could have been. And we miss them," Mr. Hemon says.

Through his writing, he gives them the dignity that the snipers and grenade hurlers denied them. "They attacked Sarajevo because they were against urbanity," Mr. Hemon says. "They targeted public spaces first: the square, the landmarks and the library, where different people come together and mingle. Their idea was to draw boundaries, so that people remained restricted in their zones."

  Civic life has since returned to Sarajevo, tentatively. On a recent visit, I saw young couples and families reclaiming public space. To Mr. Hemon, that is proof that Bosnia wasn't consumed by ancient hatreds, a term he despises.

  He is now researching his next novel, set in Chicago, his new home. In 1908, a Jewish immigrant went to the house of the police commissioner. In a shootout that followed, the immigrant was killed. The commissioner said the 19-year-old was an anarchist. What could have taken the man who had come to America only a few months ago to the home of the police commissioner? Mr. Hemon doesn't know the answers. Will he imagine another parallel life, of what could have happened? We don't know yet. But as we have noticed in his fiction, an unanswered question is a good place to start.