Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Nowhere Man - Aleksandar Hemon

Read: January 2009

Nowhere Man in one tweet sized chunk:
Darkly funny but emotionally reserved Nowhere Man offers further proof of Hemon's intuitive talent as a writer in English.

As with Shahrnush Parsipur, I first came across Aleksandar Hemon through his participation in New Writing Worlds. However it wasn't until I was commissioned to write the Waterstone's Books Quarterly review for The Lazarus Project that I actually discovered what an excellent writer he is.

There is a certain amount of biography about Jozef Pronek, the star of Nowhere Man. He first appeared in a short story in Hemon's debut collection, The Question of Bruno, where (like Hemon) we saw him leaving Sarajevo to visit Chicago just in time to watch war break out at home on TV. Nowhere Man sees Jozef trying to make his way in his accidentally adoptive country. It is a complex, time shifting, elliptical novel in which the narrative shuffles between his childhood in Sarajevo where he formed Beatles cover bands and tried to be cool, his student days in Kiev where he had a bizarre encounter with George Bush Senior, and Chicago in the 1990s. In need of a job Jozef joins with a band of Greenpeace activists where ha learns the subtle tactics needed to extract money from people who don't really want to give it, and even attends a rally where he finds it impossible not to correct the grammar of the protesters. 'One, two, three, four, we don't want nukes no more' they chant. Shouldn't that be 'one, two, three, four, we don't want nukes anymore' he corrects. And there are other subtle linguistic word plays scattered throughout this complex novel. The prose is exact and poetic, it is no surprise that he has already being compared regularly with the likes of Vladimir Nabokov.

However, for all the great prose, the problem with Nowhere Man is that it is difficult to follow due to all the time shifts. Hemon also seems to go to great lengths to keep the reader at arms length from his character. It is a dryly witty view of life which Jozef offers, rather than a deeply emotive one. And it is this emotional distance which differentiates it from the fantastic Lazarus Project which was one of the very best books I read in all of 2008.

Aleksandar Hemon is a first rate writer and one to look out for over the coming years.

7 out of 10

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