When less is more
NOWHERE MAN by Aleksandar Hemon Picador. £15.99, pp. 242, ISBN 0330393499 Aleksandar Hemon was stranded in the USA when the siege of Sarajevo began on the day of his scheduled flight home to the city in 1992. He settled in Chicago and worked on his rudimentary grasp of English, beginning to write in his second language three years later. By the time his first book — The Question of Bruno — was published in 2000, the brightest new literary talent in years was earning fair comparisons with Vladimir Nabokov. Nowhere Man is billed as Hemon's 'debut novel' but it is really, like his first book, a collection of short stories and biographical fragments. The difference is that this time almost all the pieces concern one character the author's alter ego, the sympathetic Bosnian Serb Josef Pronek. A further difference is that, unlike its marvellous predecessor, this work is less than the sum of its parts.
As we learn of Pronek's childhood and adolescence through stock renditions of youthful disappointment and clumsy sex, it soon becomes clear that the character is a fish that shines only out of water. His relationships are unremarkable. while an account of forming a Beatles tribute bank in Tito's Yugoslavia is dull at best and, as comedy, compares unfavourably with Harry Enfield's parody of spotty European teenagers obsessed with 'pretty girls and guitar-based rock'. Occasionally, the narrative is enlivened by an anecdote. For example, while studying in the Ukraine Pronek meets George Bush Snr, who tells him 'God bless your country, son'. 'It is not my country ... I am from Bosnia,' replies Pronek. 'You bet your life it is,' insists the President. 'It is as yours as you make it.' The problem is that, during this period. Pronek is an articulate young man speaking in his mother tongue. Fresh perceptions of a new world are replaced by stale renditions of the old, and his charm and sensitivity return only in the passages where the author regresses to his language class days. Even then we find that the keen immigrant eye has given way to cracks about grammar. 'I should have gone the other way,' Pronek says to the bourbonswilling private eye who employs him as a bagman. 'Went,' he is corrected. You say I should've went the other way.' Such jokes are welcome, but then any device would be in a book that has enough descriptive material between its covers for a couple of short stories, but too little storytelling for even a single genuine tale. In the absence of plot. Pronek the refugee has nothing to give but himself. However, the author seems to to think that his hero's presence alone should be enough to make us feel privileged. It is not. When Hemon knew less of the English language, his choices were perhaps limited by his ability — that is, he could write only what he knew how to say. This placed him perfectly to express the predicament of a worldly man forced back into innocence by circumstances. But now that Hemon knows how to say more, it seems that he has allowed his ability to become limited by his decision-making and, unfortunately, his choices are less reliable than his innate talent on this showing.