An unusual structure, along with a striking pictorial and metaphoric imagination, offers distinctive literary pleasures in this genuinely original first novel by the Bosnian-American author (stories: The Question of Bruno, 2000).
In the terrific opening chapter, the unidentified narrator recognizes the title character as Jozef Pronek (also the protagonist of a novella in Bruno), while the latter (a countryman) is interviewing for a job as an ESL teacher in Chicago. Thereafter, sequences presented from various points of view tell the story of Jozef’s upbringing in Sarajevo: his infancy and “toddlerhood,” gradually more successful sexual fantasies and fumblings, participation in a Beatles-inspired rock band, his “poetry-writing-period” and adult education. Hemon keeps deftly shifting the ground beneath the reader’s feet. When Jozef goes to study “general literature” in Kiev (prior to and during the breakup of the Soviet Union), his scholarly Russian-American roommate gradually confesses to himself (and us) his love for the exuberantly extroverted Jozef. A letter from a former band- and soul-mate who remains in Sarajevo during the violent 1990s follows, as do more elaborate accounts of Jozef’s work as a lab technician, then a canvasser for Greenpeace, and his marriage to a woman whose love for him (and his for her) cannot vanquish the loneliness and paranoia that will make Jozef forever (as the Beatles put it) “a nowhere man.” This vivid tragicomedy of alienation and assimilation is further enlivened by the freshness of Hemon’s figurative language—notably his habit of scribing human qualities to nonhuman or inanimate objects (“buses . . . sucking in passengers through the front doors”; a “camera clicking . . . like a hiccupping clock”).
Think of the gifted Hemon as a kinder and gentler—and infinitely funnier—Jerzy Kosinski. A wry, touching chronicle of the misadventures of a stranger in several strange lands. Don’t miss it.