Here's one of my everything-is-connected, one book leads to another kinda intro. I was told of Aleksandar Hemon's work by another writer, Valerie Laken, who praised his short stories, which made me sit up and take notice because her own story collection, SEPARATE KINGDOMS, was simply outstanding. I think she's also from Chicago, which is where Hemon lives now. Anyway, while looking at Hemon's story collections (there are two) I also found this novel, NOWHERE MAN, which immediately intrigued me because the title comes, of course, from the Beatles song and I have been a Beatles fan and follower since 1964. And just in the past year or two I read a couple of other novels that were both inspired by the music of the Beatles. One, originally published in Norwegian over 25 years ago is called simply BEATLES (by Lars Saabye Christensen), and tells of the lives of four young Oslo boys whose lives were influenced by the Liverpool lads - a wonderful picaresque, coming of age kind of novel only translated into English a year or so ago. The other is from Finland, called POPULAR MUSIC FROM VITTULA, and again it's all about some kids who were first enthralled by a 45 rpm Beatles record, "Rock and Roll Music," which they didn't understand but immediately made it their own as they labored to learn how to play musical instruments. Once again, a funny and marvelous book. And the Beatles' music was what started it all.
So now here's Aleksandar Hemon with his fictional tale of Bosnian emigrant (not quite a refugee), Jozef Pronek, who does indeed appear to "a real Nowhere Man," caught between cultures as he struggles to make a life for himself in 1990s Chicago. Hemon gives a pretty complete look at Pronek's life, from his childhood in Sarajevo and a comical and sometimes heartbreaking look at Jozef's experiences with girls and women, from his first realization at the age of 10 or 11 that there was a real and mysterious difference between the girls who wore no tops at the beach and those who did not to a final tenuous adult relationship with a young woman he meets while working as a door-to-door canvaser for Greenpeace. Oh yeah, and early on, he and his friend Mirzah become Beatles fans and, like the kids in the Finnish and Norwegian books, take up instruments and learn to play the Fab Four tunes, mostly to get chicks, of course. There is one particularly poignant scene toward the book's end when the adult Jozef reluctantly acknowledges that "Yesterday" was never really anything but an especially sappy song, certainly marking the end of his long-held innocence.
This is a richly textured and episodic book which speaks to and of so many important issues both sociological and historical. There are many references to the civil war in Bosnia, of course, and a ground-level and graphic view of how things really were there and in Ukraine in the early 90s as the USSR suddenly flamed out and crumbled, allowing centuries old ethnic hatreds and rivalries to ignite again. Jozef, a peaceful and essentially good-hearted observer, doesn't really understand the hatred between the Christian and Muslim populations that suddenly erupts in those violent and turbulent times. He is perhaps more of a victim and casualty than a participant.
Geeze, there is just so much going on in this book, which covers the first nearly thirty years of Pronek's life as well as his family history and ancestry, which, as the final chapter suggests must all be taken with several grains of salt.
There are several narrators in NOWHERE MAN. I kinda lost count as I at times wrestled with the constantly shifting point-of-view, trying to establish exactly who was speaking in each chapter or section of the book. Finally I just gave up and went with the flow. I loved the one narrator, Viktor Plavchuk, a grad student in English Lit, who unwillingly falls in love with Jozef, and whose dissertation topic is "Queer Lear."
Humor is a constant in the narrative and I found myself smiling, chuckling and laughing throughout the book, at least when I wasn't being horrified by descriptions of the wars. The description of the obligatory year of national military service is especially funny and will ring true to any veteran.
The last couple of chapters are perhaps the hardest, due to the quick shifts in times and narrators. Jozef and his Amazing Technicolor Dreams are surreal and disturbing, and in this final 'ancestral history' Hemon revisits many of the names from earlier in the book and recasts them in a broader historical view, even using his own name - "Alex Hemmon, a former member of the Purple Gang in Detroit, a hit man who has to kill someone every time he gets drunk (which he does habitually), and who moonlights as a professional trombonist in an orchestra regularly performing at the Far Eastern Grand Opera."
Because I had trouble with the shifting POV's and the last chapter, which seemed almost tacked on, I was tempted to give this book just 4 stars. But then I thought, Nah. Just because I didn't quite get it doesn't negate the sheer genius of the book. This is most definitely a 5-star read, maybe more. I recommend it highly. - Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir BOOKLOVER