Take one Bosnian journalist, strand him in Chicago on the outbreak of war in his homeland, give him three years in which to learn English and what you get is a writer whose use of his second language is truly amazing.
For that, in a nutshell, is the story of Aleksandar Hemon. He was at the end of a journalists’ exchange programme in 1992, when war broke out and he decided to remain in the US. Despite having, by his own admission, only tourist English on his arrival, Hemon needed only three years to learn the language sufficiently well to be able to start writing his first book. “The Question of Bruno” is a collection of a novella and some short stories and was critically well-received, garnering comparisons to Nabokov and Conrad. This was followed by “Nowhere Man”, which was published in the US in 2002.
I was hoping that the RNG would be kind to me in its choice of my first book in the 1,001 Book challenge. There are a fair number of books in the list that might well have strangled the project at birth if they had come out of the hat (yes, James Joyce, I’m looking at you). Fortunately, the RNG came up trumps.
The Nowhere Man of the title is one Jozef Pronek, a Bosniak of Ukrainian ancestry, who, as was his creator, stranded on Chicago when the Bosnian war broke out. The novel jumps between Chicago, Sarajevo, Kiev and Shanghai and relates a number of episodes in the life of Pronek, speaking from the perspective of different narrators, one or more of whom may, in fact, be Jozef himself.
The first thing that struck me about Nowhere Man was the use of language itself. Hemon nuances each of his voices according to their expected mastery of English idiom. He skilfully voices the idiosyncracies of immigrant speech and the lazy spoken language of the everyday Westerner. Beyond this, Hemon’s use of English is pyrotechnic. You are never more than a couple of sentences away from a description that makes you chuckle or gasp. Maybe because English is not his first language (although Hemon claims to be “pathologically bi-lingual”), he uses words in unusual, but still correct, ways and makes the reader look at descriptions in a fresh way.
Pronek, like Hemon, is a stranger in a foreign land and, consequently, the loneliness and dislocation of the immigrant experience is central to Nowhere Man. At one point, Pronek takes another McJob, as a paid door-to-door fundraiser for Greenpeace. He adopts a new identity for each of his attempts at soliciting donations, in reflection of the essential anonymity of the immigrant. It is also noteworthy that Pronek’s character itself is described differently in familiar settings like Sarajevo to new settings like Chicago.
At times, Nowhere Man is very funny, yet, at heart, it is a sad novel about a man adrift in a new world. Yet the sheer luminosity of Hemon’s writing prevents it from sinking into misery. The ending verges on the supernatural and forced me into thinking about the story from an entirely new perspective. It could be viewed as a touch too surreal and, hence a distraction from the main themes. This is a minor criticism, however.
I thoroughly enjoyed Nowhere Man and was left curious as to what happened next to Pronek and Rachel. Was it a book I must read before I die? Probably not, but I am glad I did.