Aleksandar Hemon

"Nowhere Man"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 19, 2003)

"Sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans."

Jozef Pronek, as a teenager in Sarajevo, loves the Beatles, and, not surprisingly, forms a band with other young people, all of whom, like Jozef, have dreams but no prospects, their favorite song being "Nowhere Man." Later, almost by accident, Jozef finds himself living in Chicago, thousands of miles from the Balkan war which is destroying his country, still without prospects. As he and several named and unnamed narrators relate episodes from Jozef's unfocused life throughout the 1990's, the story jumps from Chicago to Sarajevo to Kiev and Shanghai, following no sequential order, and always returning to the controlling idea that "There was a hole in the world, and I fit right into it; if I perished, the hole would just close, like a scar healing..."

Read excerptHemon, a Sarajevo native who didn't begin writing in English until 1995, achieves immense power by keeping his sentence structure simple, acutely observing the minutiae of Jozef's life, meticulously selecting images which are both visually and emotionally memorable, then firing them at us in a staccato series of flashes. Just before a job interview, for example, Jozef recalls smashing cardboard boxes, a cat eating the head of a mouse, the Bosnian war as seen on TV, and a passing driver pointing a finger at him and pretending to shoot. Boiling eggs are seen as "iris-less eyes," and he has "butterflies in [his] stomach, ripping off one another's wings." With irony and dark humor, he recalls a woman calling out to her lost dog, "Lucky Boy," while a young ESL teacher addresses her class as "you guys" and conducts lessons about Siamese twins.

Jozef is a character with whom most readers will empathize, and as we view his life at home and abroad, we root for his success at the same time that we fear his failure. "The possibility that the world can never respond to [Jozef's] desires torture[s] him." Because separating Jozef from all his fantasies is not always easy, some readers may still be wondering at the end of the novel, "Who is Jozef Pronek, really?" however, and his world, in which an "omniscient, omnipotent, but not necessarily benevolent being" is in control, will not appeal to everyone. For those who love language used in fresh ways, however, this novel offers innumerable delights and great satisfaction.

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About the Author:

Aleksandar HemonAleksandar Hemon (HAY-mun) was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1964. He began writing as a teenager, was a published writer by the time he graduated from Sarajevo University in 1990, and later became cultural editor of Dani, the independent Sarajevo weekly. In 1992, he went to Chicago on what was planned as a short visit, but he was soon stranded in the U.S. as Sarajevo fell under siege. Hemon found himself unable to write in his native Serbo-Croatian. When it became clear that he would be in the U.S. more or less permanently, he gave himself five years to master enough English to write fiction. Hemon laboriously expanded his knowledge of English, using Nabokov's Lolita as his key to unlocking the language. His metamorphosis from Bosnian refugee with basic English to an author writing in English making the most acclaimed literary debut in decades was astonishing. One of his first stories, "Islands," was published in Ploughshares and then reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1999.

His short story collection The Question of Bruno, which appeared on Best Books of 2000 lists nationwide, won several literary awards, and was published in eighteen countries. His novel Nowhere Man has been selected as a 2002 National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) finaliist.Hemon's work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Esquire, Granta, Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories.

He is a recipient of the 2004 MacArthur Prize.

Aleksandar Hemon lives in Chicago, Illinois and teaches at the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014