Nowhere Man



Jozef Pronek was born in the Sarajevo maternity hospital, on September 10, 1967, after thirty-seven hours of excruciating labor, the culmination of which was his mother's oath, as Jozef's little head was stuck between her legs halfway into the world, that she would strangle him with her own hands if he didn't come out immediately. His mother regretted her threat the moment she saw his crumpled face, dominated by a screaming mouth, like an Expressionist painting. In her delirium she found it extraordinarily beautiful.

It was that very same Expressionist face that was exhibited to Jozef's father, who was outside in the sunny hospital park littered with drunken fathers. Pronek Sr. labored to stand straight, propped up by his friend Dusko, with whom he had celebrated his son's arrival into this woeful world. In a moment of peculiar inspiration, seeing his wrinkled, furious face, Father compared him to the notorious Tshombe, the man who killed Patrice Lumumba. Dusko, on the other hand found the nascent Jozef to resemble Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps because of a sheet of gauze wrapped across his minikin chest. On little Jozef's part, all he can remember (he still implausibly claims) from that day—the first in an as yet unconcluded sequence of days that constitute his life—was a frightening deluge of blazing light coming at him through the window pane, as if the first thing he ever saw were a nuclear explosion.

Jozef's infancy was typically uneventful: sucking, sleeping, shitting, diaper-changing, sleeping, sucking, burping and so on. Out of the molten lava of his early experiences, a few awkward rocks formed: during an afternoon stroll along the Miljacka river a chestnut in its spiky armor fell directly into his lap; a neighbor's dog thrust his head into the shade of the perambulator and licked Jozef's face; during a diaper change, he peed in a perfect arc on an electric heater, discontinuing the stream just in time not to get electrocuted, the piss evaporating like an unfinished dream; a mouse, indigenous to the damp basement apartment his parents were renting, crawled into his crib and on to his stomach, whereupon Jozef put his hand around it and grasped the furry, warm body, throbbing with life and fear.

As for Jozef's toddlerhood, it was rather more eventful: his drunken uncle Dragan (who would, many years later, driving to the seaside through the Neretva canyon, give a left-turn signal and steer his car into the abyss) dangled him over the balcony fence: gravity stretched out his crooked little legs and strained his arms to the verge of shoulder dislocation. I must mention his first independent walking expedition, whereby Jozef escaped his mother's attention, entered the elevator and then toddled over to Hotel Bristol, armed with nothing but a pacifier. There he encountered a busload of Chinese table-tennis players, all competitors in the Table Tennis World Championship—one of them juggled ping-pong balls, mesmerizing Jozef and impeding his advance until the distraught arrival of his mother. I should also submit a picture of Jozef with the hair-do of a provincial basketball coach, tottering toward the camera with a hand extended, ever eager to go beyond the boundaries of his domain.

Perhaps it was Jozef's adventurous spirit proving to be a little too much for his parents, that made them import Grandma Natalyka from the countryside. Grandma Natalyka arrived late one night in a dark dress, equipped with boxy suitcases. She kissed his parents without submitting to an urge to smile, then looked at Jozef with a serious face, as if assessing the amount of work necessary to mold this chunk of raw humanity into a decent person. Hence Jozef's childhood is marked by Grandma Natalyka's doting presence: she provided milky meals in the morning; she administered afternoon walks and supervised playground activities. She protected him from unmerited (and merited) pushes and punches. This might have prevented Jozef from developing lasting playground friendships—upon Grandma Natalyka's merciless fillip or blood-curdling shout, other kids, backed by much feebler forces (adolescent distant cousins; babysitters reading romances; simply nobody) kept their distance. There he is: digging a meaningless hole in the sandbox with a plastic shovel misshapen by his anger, while everybody else is gathered on the other end of the sandbox, filling up one another's buckets with sand. And there is Grandma Natalyka, looming on the horizon like a battleship, furiously knitting another warm sweater for little Jozef.

She strictly enforced afternoon naps, mitigating her strictness by scratching Jozef's head until he fell asleep. After the nap, Jozef would have to endure a rehearsal of her knitted collections—he stood still for many long minutes, fully dressed in a wool sweater, (stretching his arms out, as if he were sending a semaphore message, the sleeve-ends hanging over his fingers) wearing a pair of mittens and a hat with a cluster of silly pom-poms. He would desperately await the liberation arriving with his parents' return from work and then revel in their attention: he would employ his father's gigantic foot as a hobby-horse, while his father watched the news cross-legged; he would listen to his mother singing Bosnian songs while ironing, occasionally reaching piercing heights, which would make his father turn up the TV. Grandma Natalyka would retreat into her room and do the who-knows-what of elderly women.

She returned at bedtime to deliver stories. He was squeezed between a cold wall and her warm body, his head in her armpit bay exuding the scent of cinnamon and sauerkraut brine. She narrated a cycle of stories featuring a gallery of animals that all lived in the far-off land of her childhood. There was a brave ewe, who attacked trespassers and thieves and passers-by. There was a dog who thought of the kids as sheep and kept them together, until he got so old that her father had to kill him in with an ax blow in the head. There was a swarm of bees which her grandfather made hang from his pate like hair to the kids' delight. There was even a dolphin that came in one day with a carny. It was supposed to jump through hoops, but instead lied sunk and puffing at the bottom of a hole full of cold, muddy water the kids (paid in candy currency) brought in buckets from the local well. Before landing on the soft cushion of sleep, he speculated about the dolphin's fate: he imagined a savior buying it from the carny; he imagined the dolphin running away with the help of other carny animals; he imagined a numinous boy with resurrection powers. But the salvation never came in time—the dolphin suffocated, despite all the imaginative effort he put in to it. Often Jozef would slip into a dream that did not care about the dolphin but carried along according to its own cruel, selfish logic—Grandma Natalyka or his parents were dying, he could do nothing to stop it, and he would wake up weeping. Grandma would be asleep, the steady hum of her snoring increasing. He would watch her dream-frown, feeling the rumble of her slumber, the slight vibrations of her upper lip and nostrils as she exhaled.

I can safely say that Jozef's conscious life fully began the day he looked at the sleeping Grandma Natalyka and her face was much too tranquil: no snoring, no nose-hair shudder. Her body warmth slowly vanished, as Jozef lied facing the wall, trying to convince himself that if he went to sleep and woke up a little later, she would be back in the kitchen, banging the pots and slamming the cupboard doors. But he couldn't fall asleep, constantly tickled by the thought of death sharing the bed with him. He looked at her again, and her eyes were only half closed; he could see the glassy corneas. It seemed that she was looking at him through the slits from somewhere far away, and he could not think of any reason why she wouldn't come back. Everything in the room was perfectly still, as if it all went away with Grandma and only left behind its shapes to keep Jozef company.

Thus death entered Pronek's life. He watched his mother sob and his father cry, and a procession of black-clad people, towing unnaturally quiet children through their apartment, as if it were a train station. He felt guilty for not being able to produce a respectable amount of tears. In a moment of inspiration, which was to provide a sentimental delight to his family for years to come, Pronek cut an onion in half and applied the halves to his eyes, producing more tears than necessary and a couple of hours of complete blindness.

Pronek's early boyhood was spent shedding the stigma of cuteness signified by the pom-poms and frills, by his round cheeks and girlish curls. Wearing a Grandma-produced sweater Pronek crawled under steam trains lounging in the train station near his home and pulled plugs that made the steam go shshhshhs and produce fluffy clouds. He fought as a foot soldier in a street war against the kids from the Tito building (it had a huge Tito picture on its top), under the command of the boy who called himself Zagor Te Nay, after a comic book character. Jozef talked his friends into eating some wild fruit that looked like grapes, but were possibly poisonous and tasted bitter and disgusting, thereby experiencing early the bliss of leadership. He won the game that consisted of collecting points for lifting mini-skirts of the young women walking down the street. He stuck nails into electric outlets and threw rocks on street cars. No one would have thought of Pronek as a cute six-year-old when he spat at his father and told him to fuck off, after Pronek Sr. demanded from him an apology for calling his mother a bleating sheep. Pronek Sr. sentenced Pronek to twenty-five lashes, the execution scheduled for the time between the evening cartoons and the news. It was furthermore judged that school, beginning that fall, would still allow enough time for mischief, and Pronek was enrolled in English and accordion lessons the next day.

In the tiny workshop of his mind, Pronek can assemble a model of the English classroom in the Pioneer Center "Blagoje Parovi?." The room is dark green, because of the heavy green curtains filtering the sunlight beating at the windows. There is a map of England, with London like a wound in its side, ruptured blood vessels stretching toward Scotland and Liverpool. There is a poster with two cartoon men (their heads square, their eyes dots, their noses sharp angles) shaking hands, and saying: "How do you do? My name is___________." The green coating makes the teacher look like a corpse, with her sagging cheek apples and thin, tight lips. (Mirza, who is to become his best friend, is reading comic books under the desk. Pronek can see Mandrake hypnotizing two goons with guns: they stand petrified with glassy eyes.) The teacher raises her hand with its mauve claws and they all start singing: "Catch a Falling Star and Put It in Your Pocket, Save It For a Rainy Day."

The English classes were bearable in comparison to the accordion classes. The accordion torment was conducted by a music teacher with thick, brushy mustache, who clearly spent a lot of time hating his students. They sat with the heavy accordions in their laps, stretching the beasts across their narrow chests, repeating the simple melodies ("Little Gypsy Girls Steps into the Water") over and over again, melodies that Pronek carried home in his head, resulting in dreams with Grandma Natalyka playing the accordion up to her ankles in icy water.

The first day in school sums up well Pronek's early educational experiences: droves of girls with nicely combed hair shimmering under sunlight; the pleasant contrast between their navy blue school uniforms and virginally white stockings; mobs of boys, tripping each other, causing sprained wrists and severe elbow injuries; a spitting contest, won by one Amir, who could spit between his teeth, like a snake; Mirza reading comic books under the desk (Prince Valiant); a gentle boy, with longish, dark hair, sniveling in the front row, while his mother poked her head into the classroom, speaking to him sotto voce. The teacher, an auntly woman who spoke with stern inflections and wrote with the fountain-pen point upside down, touched the boy's head with her gnarled hand, but it helped little—he kept bawling, a little puddle of tears forming on the desk in front of him.

The first day they learned that Nature was everything that surrounded them; that Tito was president; that the most important thing in our society was preserving brotherhood and unity; that you must not wipe your nose with your sleeves; and that our planet was in the Solar System, which was in the Milky Way, which was in the Universe, which was everywhere, much like Nature. The knowledge imparted was significant only in its eminent uselessness: when his parents asked him what he had learned that day in school he said: "Nothing"—the word that he was to use throughout his schooling to describe his progress.

The only thing that distinguished Pronek in school was that he never, ever volunteered to do anything: no question was worthy a voluntary answer; no task was challenging enough for him to step out of his daydreaming. In parent-teacher conferences, the teacher told Pronek's parents that he had potential, delivering her verdict with a grimace of mild disgust, as if potential were an odorous skin condition.

Through the fifth grade they learned more about Nature, though Society entered the picture in the fourth grade (Pronek liked Society more than Nature); they read books about freedom-loving forest animals ("The Squirrel's Little House"), teenage partisan couriers ("Little Heroes"), and lonesome dwarves ("The Dwarf from a Forsaken Land"). Nor was their physical development neglected: they climbed ropes, and rolled medicine balls in circles like disoriented dung beetles. On state holidays, they celebrated Tito's birthday and other important dates from the proud history of socialist struggle and self-management. The school choir sang appropriate songs, about miners fighting injustice and the revolution akin to a steely locomotive.

Pronek liked singing—he sang well—but he preferred the songs they learned in the English classes at the Pioneer Center: "My Bonnie Is Over the Ocean"; "Yellow Submarine"; "Everybody Loves Somebody (Sometimes)." He would sing at the top of his lungs at home, to the dismay of his parents, too tired to tolerate Pronek's roaming up and down the scales. Besides, they did not understand English, which was why they were prone to suspicion regarding the real content of those foreign songs: drugs? prostitution? masturbation? Those songs were so much unlike the songs the elder Proneks liked to sing: the quiet Bosnian songs, sung in the spirit of calm realization that life would pass like spring bloom and that there was nothing but infinite darkness in the end. They demanded to know what in the world was Jozef singing about. At first he refused to divulge the real content of the songs, but then started to make it up, enjoying his power over his ignorant parents. Thus "Yellow Submarine" was about a balloon that wanted to be free; "My Bonnie Is over the Ocean" was about a little squirrel that was run over by a big, bad truck, but then resurrected and lived in Grandma's pantry; and "Everybody Loves Somebody (Sometimes)" was about a burglar who stole from rich old people and gave to poor kids. "Nice," said the parents, as the idea of social justice appealed to them. Still, his father, a police inspector, maintained his suspicion and decided to find and enlist a colleague who could speak English enough to decode the lyrics—a failed attempt as none of his colleagues spoke any English.

It was in the summer after the fifth grade that a small reconnaissance unit of pubertal hormones—the avant-garde of a great army—entered the unconquered Pronek territory. He was spending a couple of seaside-vacation weeks with his parents in Gradac. He absorbed sun on the beach, swam in the deep waters, hoping to encounter some dolphins, and built pebble fortresses easily penetrated by feeble waves. He had noticed before that there were girls who didn't have to wear a swimsuit top and that there were girls who did, but for the first time that summer he realized that there was a fundamental difference between them, so much so that he got a slap on the back of his head for staring at a girl in a pink swimsuit, her nipples swollen.

In the evenings, when pines exuded bounteous resin smells, when the breeze off the cooling sea brought forth tickling saltiness, when warm bodies exuded coconut-milky sun-lotion scent, there was a dance for kids at the hotel. The first evening, Pronek spotted a long-legged girl with her hair bleached by the sun, clearly playing for the top-wearers. She was dancing with her father, a burly man in a white undershirt, his belly bulging forward, maintaining the distance between them. Pronek circled around her like a hawk, until she noticed him and smiled, whereupon he circled some more, as hormone reinforcements kept arriving to the front. The second evening, the circles narrowed, until he stopped in front of her, his head still spinning, and asked her to dance. His attitude aimed to suggest that he wanted to dance only because there was absolutely nothing else to do. They clumsily danced, like infatuated zombies, avoiding bodily contact, yet craving it. By the end of the first week, they were spending time on the beach together. Her name was Suzana, and she was from Belgrade. At the beach they had to perform a complicated glance dance, eschewing looking at each other's interesting areas. Midway through the second week, they could not hold themselves back: their lips stiffly touched, their teeth clacking. They were sitting right at the water line, tiny waves crawling between their toes, Pronek's arm over her shoulder, like a dead fish. The sun was setting, providing a tacky orange spill that often appears on postcards and can still bring tears to Pronek's eyes. By the end of the second week, as his departure was looming on the glum horizon, Pronek licked her ear, as his hand was resting on her belly-button, paralyzed in the nether area between the two fantastic possibilities. He, then, proposed, determined to spend the rest of his life with her. She needed to ask her father, an Army colonel with a frighteningly hairy chest. He forbade her to see Pronek ever again, an order she bravely defied: they met for the last time in the bushes behind the hotel. They squatted, whispering the vows of love. With her head on his shoulder, her tears trickling into his armpit, Pronek susurrously sang "My Bonnie Is Over the Ocean," trying hard not to keel over onto a used condom someone left behind, his throat tight with sorrow.

By the time he got back home in Sarajevo, the Pronek territory had been fully conquered. Mirza informed him in an audibly deeper voice that he was considering shaving his legs, as they were far too hairy. Shortly after the new school year started, Pronek received a letter from Suzana, barely mentioning their eternal love and containing a picture of her "friend," a lanky pimplehead in a Sex Pistols T-shirt with the fine name of Tadija. The hard part in writing a narrative of someone's life is choosing from the abundance of details and microevents, all of them equally significant, or equally insignificant. If one elects to include only the important events: the births, the deaths, the loves, the humiliations, the uprisings, the ends and the beginnings, one denies the real substance of life: the ephemera, the nethermoments, much too small to be recorded: the train pulling into the station where there is nobody; a spider sliding down an invisible rope and landing on the floor just in time to be stepped on; a pigeon looking straight into your eyes; a tender hiccup of the person standing in front of you in line for bread; an unintelligible word muttered by a one-night-stand, sleeping naked and nameless next to you. But you cannot simply list all the moments when the world tickles your senses, only to seep away between your fingers and eyelashes, leaving you alone to tell the story of your life to an audience interested only in the fireworks of universal experiences, the roller coaster rides of sympathy and judgment.

Thus I am forced to describe the significant events occurring after Pronek's first love disaster: he locked himself up in his room and refused to come out for three days, his mother leaving food in front of the door, only to find it untouched; he announced his decision to abolish his accordion studies; he gut drunk with Mirza on the cheap stuff (with labels brandishing drunken sailors and knights with javelins) from his father's booze chest; he got caught masturbating at his desk, instead of studying Nature and Society; he demanded in no uncertain terms that he be granted funds for acquiring a guitar, which was initially declined mainly because of his brash manner, but then approved with the hope that he would stop being such an ass; he broke his soup bowl at the family dinner with a furious spoon smack, and then pitilessly watched the soup flooding the tablecloth; he woke up in the middle of the night overwhelmed with sourceless anger, then roamed the apartment, hoping to startle his parents out of their tranquil dreams.

Nevertheless, let us zoom in on an insignificant moment: he walked down ?trosmajerova and stopped in front of the music store and saw a Beatles songbook. Let us face the store window with him. Let us be aware that an old man with a crooked hand that trembled on his walking stick stood next to him. Let us turn towards the cathedral and see the street rising to meet its stairs. Let us hear the cathedral's bells. Let us believe that Ringo winked at him from the songbook cover. If we have done all this, there is the final step: let us foresee the future in which Pronek is surrounded with girls, who all shake their heads following the magic rhythm of his guitar, their tresses quivering—let us be rewarded with a pleasant tingle of an intense epiphany.

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Excerpted from Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. Copyright © 2002 by Aleksandar Hemon. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.