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
complicated words turned up.
In 2000, we got the first glimpse of his exceptional gifts,
collection, "The Question of Bruno," about a family's journey from
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
[22.60 euros]). In "Nowhere Man," Mr. Hemon puts flesh, blood and
the bones of Pronek. "Nowhere Man" follows him from early childhood,
moment his mother threatens to strangle him unless he gets out
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
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
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
without realizing that the Serb is armed. Pronek's Slavic heritage protects
him, and the Serb tells him not to believe the "Muslim propaganda"
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
Hemon explains: "There are overlaps in our lives, but Pronek's life is not
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
time he took a step." Like Lady Macbeth, we are forced to wash our hands
feet. Likewise, he describes smelly armpits, "like wet bandages," or
"cinnamon and sauerkraut brine." Fruits, too, are important: Heads
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
when he closes the bathroom door.
This robustness contrasts with the sparse writing in
fiction. Mr. Hemon doesn't like such minimalism. "I don't believe in taking
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
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
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
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
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
their humanity. "And now those lives are lost. Sarajevo has these absent,
invisible people -- people who could have been. And we miss them," Mr.
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
"They targeted public spaces first: the square, the landmarks and the
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
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
question is a good place to start.