Aleksandar Hemon, born in Sarajevo, came to America in 1992 on a cultural visa as a twenty-eight-year-old journalist. Scheduled to return to Bosnia on the day the Yugoslav army began shelling his home town, he was granted political asylum and settled down in Chicago, taking jobs as a dishwasher and sandwich maker and trying to learn English by making lists of words from the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. Three years after his arrival in the United States he started publishing stories in English in magazines such as The New Yorker and Granta; some were chosen for Best American Short Stories. When his collection The Question of Bruno appeared in 2000, he received rave reviews and was compared to famous European authors such as Joseph Conrad and Nabokov who wrote brilliantly in English.
Jozef Pronek, one of Hemon’s alter egos, was introduced in a novella-length story in The Question of Bruno entitled “Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls,” a story about a Bosnian immigrant who comes to think of himself as a cartoon character, a dog, a detective, a madman. (Pronek is not blind; the title of the story comes from the name of the rock band he established in Bosnia, derived from a blind American blues singer.) Now, in Nowhere Man, his highly anticipated first novel, Hemon traces Pronek’s life back to its beginnings in Sarajevo, recounts his youthful coming of age, and details his efforts to make a new home in America.
Most first novels are, almost inevitably, semiautobiographical, and Nowhere Man is no exception. Many autobiographical novels are about the quest for identity, and in this regard, Nowhere Man is also representative. Taking his title from the Beatles song of the same name, Hemon explores the implications of a nowhere man living in a nowhere land. Another Beatles song thematically important in the novel, “Yesterday,” suggests the book’s basic dichotomy—a yesterday when one’s troubles seemed far away, as opposed to today, when one must face the uncertainties of one’s identity. As opposed to the horrors of the Bosnian war, the first narrator of the novel recalls Sarajevo in the 1980’s when the boys were handsome, the girls beautiful, the sports teams successful, and the bands good.
Hemon makes use of various traditional novelistic conventions in Nowhere Man. At one point, he pauses momentarily to consider that the hard part of writing a narrative of one’s life is how to choose from all the details and “microevents,” for all of them seem both significant and insignificant at the same time. If one includes all the large events, Hemon’s narrator muses, there is the danger of missing all the small events that create a rich texture of life that identifies one as an individual. Of the many traditional fictional techniques and conventions Hemon uses in the novel to try to create a balance between the individual and the universal, the most predominant is his experimentation with point of view. The story of Jozef Pronek is told by a series of different narrators, for after all, a man’s identity is largely determined by those around him. Hemon tries to avoid lapsing into the frequently false first-person point of view of the semiautobiographical novel by having some of his narrators speak of Pronek in the third person, even though they know things that only Pronek himself could know.
Each of the seven sections of the novel focuses on a different segment of time in Pronek’s life. The first section, told by an unnamed teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) who knew Pronek as a child, centers on a single day—April 18, 1994—when the narrator encounters Pronek in his ESL class in Chicago. Section 2, titled “Yesterday,” told by the same narrator, is the most conventionally biographical section of the novel. Beginning in true Dickensian fashion—“Jozef Pronek was born”—it covers Pronek’s life in Sarajevo from his birth on September 10, 1967, to the day he boards a plane to come to the United States on January 24, 1992. This section focuses primarily on Pronek’s relationship with his friend Mizra, his efforts to form the band Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls, his first love, his first sexual experience, and his brief stint in the Soviet army. Section 3, entitled “Fatherland,” an account of Pronek’s summer school visit to Kiev in August, 1991, is told by Victor...
(The entire section is 1804 words.)