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By Aleksandar Hemon
This second novel from Hemon, a follow-up to 2000’s
The Question of Bruno, which was one of the most celebrated
debuts of recent years, concentrates on a secondary character from
that book, moving him centre stage.
When we last encountered Jozef Pronek, he had left
Sarajevo to visit Chicago in 1992, arriving just in time to watch
war break out at home on TV. Unable to return, Pronek began to make
his way in a foreign land. His adventures proved bemusing, confusing,
heartbreaking and, every so often, hilarious.
With Nowhere Man, we get this accidental refugee’s
back story, interspersed with snapshots of how his life now, as
an unwilling nomad, is progressing. From his boyhood in Sarajevo
and the grand projects of his adolescence – fighting to change the
face of rock and roll, struggling to lose this troublesome virginity
– to his meeting with George Bush pere in Kiev, his enrolment
in a Chicago language school, and his life as a minimum-wage-slave
fundraising door-to-door for Greenpeace, Pronek’s experiences are
both touchingly familiar and bracingly extraordinary.
Like his hero, Hemon was born in Sarajevo and arrived
in Chicago in 1992, an autobiographical identification which may
prove too close for comfort for some readers. He began writing and
getting published in English in 1995.
Rather like being a Northern Irish poet in the 1970s,
hailing from the traumatised conflagration of the Balkans in the
1990s can have done Hemon’s ascendant star little harm. As Harry
Lime had it in The Third Man: ‘In Italy for thirty years
under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed,
but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.
In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years
of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’
But much of the work of the man whose song lends
this book its title, John Lennon, was autobiographical, as indeed
is that of most lyric poets. Whether the recounting of incidents
based wholly or partly on personal experience works as well in fiction
is for the reader to decide. However, there can be little doubt
that Hamon would have been a writer, albeit perhaps slightly less
feted, no matter where he came from.
First published in the Irish Independent