Nowhere Man

by Aleksandar Hemon
ISBN: 0385499248

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Nowhere Man
by Nathan Whitlock

Aleksander Hemon's next work of fiction should be called "The Nabokov Comparison". Just as questions of identity-sexual, linguistic, historical, literary-haunt Hemon's fictional hero Josef Pronek, so have comparisons with Nabokov haunted the critical reception given his first novel, Nowhere Man. It's a tricky and often irresistible operation, placing an artist this way. Comparisons are often the last refuge of the ignorant critic, with reviewers squinting their eyes and declaring an uncanny resemblance where none exists. An author's given peers make up a major part of his literary nationality. Through laziness, through confusion, through intentional distortion, authors are often mis-aligned and thus find themselves stateless.
In Hemon's case the comparison is apt, and the influence admitted to. "My right foot rose out of the sludge of darkness like a squat, extinguished lighthouse. The blinds gibbered for a moment, commenting on my performance, then settled in silence." This, from the novel's very first page, is very nearly a parody of Nabokov. Even Hemon's biography seems to ghost the great Russian-American's: Hemon left Bosnia in 1992, just before the outbreak of the civil war that left him stranded in the United States. Within six or seven years, Hemon had all but mastered the English language, and begun writing and publishing the stories that made up 2000's A Question of Bruno, Hemon's first book. The centrepiece of that book was "Blind Josef Pronek & Dead Souls", a novella-length story about Josef Pronek, whose unintended emigration roughly mirrors Hemon's own.
Pronek returns in Nowhere Man, but this is not merely a continuation of the story. Nowhere Man is not quite a group of linked stories, and not quite a novel-the book is subtitled "The Pronek Fantasies", which seems to fit. Nowhere Man re-imagines Pronek in a number of guises, and through a number of narrators and perspectives. Details and incidents are echoed throughout the disparate narratives. The theme of misplaced or confused identity runs through each section. The book's first narrator comes across Pronek in an ESL class, laboriously reading an article on Siamese twins whose personalities converge. As a teenager in Sarajevo, Pronek starts a Beatles cover band, which falls apart when their Ringo goes punk and George goes back to his violin lessons (Pronek, of course, is John). On a student trip to Kiev, Pronek meets George Bush (the elder), who blithely takes him for another freedom-loving Ukranian. Years later, in Chicago, Pronek is hired by a private detective to serve court papers to a dangerous Serb, who takes Pronek to be a Serb himself. ("Are you a Serb or a Muslim?" the detective asks Pronek, who replies, "I am complicated.") Even informed North Americans had difficulty unsticking the complexities of the Bosnian war. Hemon's Pronek is compelled by history to embody all of this complexity. Working as a canvasser for Greenpeace, Pronek's shifting, confused identity is made explicit by his having to go door-to-door and be taken as a new person each time. In the book's last and most audacious section, Pronek is merely one alias used by a Ukrainian adventurer and scoundrel in China in the first half of the 20th Century. There comes a final, unexpected shift in narration that ends by looping back to the book's beginning, as if each of the book's voices has dreamt the one that follows.
Through all of this narrative shifting, there is some inevitable loss of tension, and a certain slackness creeps in during the longer episodes, as if Hemon can't resist proving his point again and again. Hemon's use of language can easily slip from agile to overwrought. And, yes, the stylistic and structural debt to Nabokov can grow a little heavy. But Nowhere Man is an impressive work, and makes most other contemporary novels feel flaccid and underimagined.

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