NABOKV-L post 0007254, Tue, 10 Dec 2002 09:04:59 -0800

Fw: Vladimir Nabokov said that he made love to the English
language when he wrote ..
EDNOTE. Critic complains of Hemon's English by misquoting Nabokov
----- Original Message -----
From: Sandy P. Klein
Cc: ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Sent: Tuesday, December 10, 2002 5:12 AM
Subject: Vladimir Nabokov said that he made love to the English language when he wrote ..


The refugee experience, in a different light



Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon was visiting friends in Chicago in 1992 when ethnic war broke out in his home city, Sarajevo. He watched the fighting on CNN, worried about his parents trapped in Sarajevo and felt like the typical refugee in America: "displaced, cheap and always angry."

But Hemon stayed in the United States and channeled his emotion and growing skill with English into a series of stories published in places like The New Yorker and Esquire and collected in 2000 as "The Question of Bruno," one of the most celebrated books of the year.

A long story from that book, "Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls," introduced the Bosnian refugee and unlikely hero Jozef Pronek, a musician and music critic from Sarajevo marooned in Chicago by the war. In Sarajevo, Pronek's band, "Blind Jozef and Dead Souls," covered songs by The Beatles and American blues legends such as Blind Lemon Jefferson. In Chicago, Pronek works a succession of low-paying service jobs as sandwich-maker in a deli, cookware salesman and bathroom cleaner for the "Home Clean Home" agency.

Pronek returns as the hero of Hemon's new novel, "Nowhere Man." "Nowhere Man" is new material, not a reworking of the story. In the earlier version Pronek is portrayed as numb from the pervasive effect of grinding poverty, dead-end jobs and no prospects. Now Pronek is more curious and engaged, as if Hemon sees the refugee experience in a different light after his longer stay in the United States.

Loosely autobiographical, "Nowhere Man" details Pronek's youth in Sarajevo; his year of compulsory military service; his long stay in Kiev, where he studies the history of his Ukrainian ancestors; and his refugee years in America, where he has a harrowing one-day job as a private detective and then signs on as a canvasser for Greenpeace in Chicago's suburbs. He meets and marries Rachel, a fellow canvasser, who feels sympathy for Pronek because she senses in him the same feeling of loss and displacement suffered by her grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor, as he struggled to rebuild his life in postwar America.

Pronek can't shake the idea that he's "stuck in the middle of himself." His rage and paranoia erupt in surprising ways, as when he and Rachel try to kill a mouse with a book, choosing to use "Death in Venice" rather than "The Idiot," in a scene that's both hilarious and unsettling. In "Nowhere Man" Hemon has found a way to dramatize the immigrant's plight and exorcise some of his own demons as well.

Unfortunately, Hemon's awkward and inept use of English mars that principal achievement on nearly every page. The critics who praised Hemon's first stories were impressed by his "fresh," "striking" and "original" voice, meaning his bold assault on English.

In the stories in "The Question of Bruno," Hemon's language has a visceral extravagance that tells us something about the refugee experience. Here is Pronek's first impression of JFK Airport: "He roved all over the airport, imagining that it had the shape of John Kennedy's supine body, with his legs and arms outstretched, and leech-like airplanes sucking its toes and fingers. He imagined traveling through Kennedy's digestive system, swimming in a bubbling river of acid, like bacteria, and ending up in his gurgling kidney-bathroom. He stepped out of the airport through one of JFK's nostrils, in front of which there were cabs lined up like a thin mustache."

In this case Hemon's freewheeling, broken English style heightens the sense of Pronek's exhaustion and anxiety. The fact that the metaphor is fractured a bit -- if JFK Airport is a body, it is laid out like a cubist painting, vital organs and orifices willy-nilly -- adds to the hallucinatory effect. But in "Nowhere Man" the prose is often flat and unimaginative. And at times it is painfully juvenile, as in a passage about the adolescent Pronek's growing sexuality. "It was in the summer of the fifth grade that a small reconnaissance unit of pubertal hormones -- the avant-garde of a great army -- entered the unconquered Pronek territory."

When Pronek finally meets the right girl, "then came the days of sharp falling in love; of eagerly agreeing with whatever the other had to say," followed by "a couple years of relationshipping" before they broke up. Vladimir Nabokov said that he made love to the English language when he wrote "Lolita." Judging his own writing in comparison, Hemon suggests that he has been engaged in "some heavy petting with the English language." I can't think of a better way to say it.

Vernon Peterson recently reviewed "The Last Girls" by Lee Smith for The Oregonian.

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