A few words such as ''mizzle,'' ''minikin,'' ''tubernose'' and
''nuncle'' warn the reader that Nowhere Man is no
''ordinary'' book. The author has come to America very lately from
what we would still call ''the former Yugoslavia,'' and he has
already been compared, in linguistic terms, to Nabokov and
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 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.
HATES THE ARMY
There's no way to prepare for the future if we don't know it's
coming. Pronek can only grow up and be a part of 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.
Then, the war. By a fluke, Pronek finds himself in America. 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 I see red full stop on his forehead and one second later
his head explodes like pomegranate.'' Then Mirza goes on to tell the
story of a horse who has looked at this nightmare world and had
enough: At a military camp, at the top of a cliff, ``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.''
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.
The author plays around a lot with chronology and point of view,
but for all this, 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 nation. What sort 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.
Carolyn See reviewed this book for The Washington