ARRIVALS WITHOUT PLOT: THE TRANSNATIONAL AESTHETICS OF NETWORK FORM IN ALEKSANDAR HEMON'S NOWHERE MAN.
During the last two decades, the network has emerged as a powerful concept that allows us to trace complex patterns and structures of interconnection. (1) A term that initially emerged in mathematics and the natural sciences, the concept of the network came to be applied to mapping and analyzing a wide range of social phenomena and organizational structures. As Caroline Levine notes, "Many literary and cultural critics have grown interested in networks in the past decade, using the concept to describe powerful social facts, such as transnational markets, transportation, and print culture" (112). In addition to their usefulness for describing and coming to terms with a wide range of social phenomena and experiences, theories of network have given rise to new models of analysis for engaging with literary texts. As Franco Moretti has suggested, the application of network theory to narrative introduces new frames of analysis for thinking about plot structure and the interrelations among characters. To borrow Moretti's words, networks allow us "to see the underlying structures of a complex object" (84).
If early scholarship tended to focus on the network's vast explanatory power, scholars in recent years have started to attend to how the rise of a network-centered understanding of the world alters the way narratives are told. Networks deeply influence the way we envision narrative form. In her analysis of Charles Dickens's multi-plot novel Bleak House, Levine observes that the novel is "a highly unusual narrative in that it organizes experience around a heaping of separate but overlapping networks" (122) and that it "expands the conventional affordances of the novel" by drastically increasing the number of characters we are asked to follow (125). In doing so, the novel is able to capture overlapping networks as well as the complexities of networked social experience. Levine further notes that while "most conventional novels that seek to capture a whole society use characters to stand for entire social groups," characters in Bleak House gain importance less due to their exemplariness, more due to their roles in "social, economic, and institutional networks" (126).
While Levine brings attention to the nineteenth-century novel, Patrick Jagoda examines how networks inform contemporary narratives. Jagoda has suggested the term "network aesthetics" in order to address how a growing sense of global interconnection has come to shape late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century cultural forms. He uses the term to "describe narrative and formal styles that channel globally interconnected systems" ("Terror Networks" 66). According to Jagoda, network aesthetics are "not merely an analytic that informs a wide range of contemporary theory, fiction, film, and digital media, but a necessary corollary to an era in which interconnection has become a dominant architectural mode, a multivalent metaphor, and even a weapon" (66). More recently, he has coined the term "network novel" to describe the US novels of the 1990s that use formal experimentation in order to address networked processes as an intimate part of our everyday experience. Through experimentation with language and narrative form, the network novel "makes possible processes of mapping networks across space and time" (Network Aesthetics 44).
Published in 2002, Nowhere Man is a novel on migration that was conceived during the time when networks came to shape our understanding of the world. Both Levine and Jagoda work on the interrelations between network theory and narrative form and point out how certain novels map networked processes and social experience. Nowhere Man does not focus on the material network structures that Levine and Jagoda tend to associate with network experience. The way Nowhere Man tells the migrant's story, however, advances a network-centered understanding of migration. As a collective account of narrators that come into contact with Pronek at a number of places, Hemon's novel foregrounds the migrant's place in a transnational network of acquaintances and friends. The migrant figure gains importance as a character that is connected to the novel's multiple narrators. This essay begins by closely examining how Nowhere Man's network aesthetics offer a model of migrant writing that thinks beyond traditional US immigrant writing's emphasis upon the teleology of progress and settlement. I argue that such departure from familiar modes of US immigrant writing is critically enabling in that it introduces a transnational frame of thought for exploring precarious forms of life led by migrants and refugees displaced by the Bosnian war. Focusing on how the novel's plotless form gives central presence to a series of encounters that unfold over multiple geographies, this essay further examines how the intimacies of transient encounter in Nowhere Man not only offer insights into the struggles of migrants and refugees living in exile, but also call forth critical engagement with nation-bound structures of feeling linked to Eastern European histories of war and migration in the late twentieth century.
Migrant Network Aesthetics
In a recent article, Bharati Mukherjee notes the emergence of a new sub-genre that starkly departs from traditional forms of immigrant writing. She proposes the term "Literature of New Arrival" to describe this new direction in US immigrant literature and discusses the implications of this development. "Literature of New Arrival" distinguishes itself from previous forms of US immigrant writing in that it breaks with "the narrative traditions of American immigrant fiction as it was practiced in the 1950s and 1960s" (683). According to Mukherjee, a dominant feature of such new narratives is an assertion of a "transnational aesthetics" (683). Traditionally, narratives of immigration have been narratives that center upon "the nuanced process of rehousement after the trauma of forced or voluntary unhousement" (683). Problems of assimilation and settlement have been central to earlier forms of immigrant writing. Mukherjee observes that the transnational aesthetics informing contemporary immigrant writing, however, places a growing emphasis upon the homeland's history and language in order to address the experience of contemporary immigrants who have "fled to the US to escape or to protest oppressive regimes in their homelands" (689). "To read recent US 'Literature of New Arrival,'" she remarks, "is to immerse oneself in the history of the homeland the immigrant author has left" (691).
Immigrant writing's emergent transnational aesthetics, as Mukherjee points out, involves various kinds of experimentations with narrative form and language. Unlike early immigrant fiction that is informed by notions of assimilation, the "Literature of New Arrival" embraces "broken narratives of disrupted lives, proliferating plots, outsize characters and overcrowded casts, the fierce urgency of obscure history, the language fusion (Spanglish, Chinglish, Hinglish, Banglish), the challenging shapelessness, and complexities of alien social structures" (683-84). The list of authors Mukherjee associates with this emergent genre is wide-ranging and includes authors of varied ethnic backgrounds such as Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Aleksandar Hemon, and Gary Shteyngart. Mukherjee does not offer a close reading of Hemon's work in her essay. Yet, her observations about recent changes in contemporary US immigrant literature profoundly resonate with the way Hemon employs network aesthetics to tell the migrant's story in Nowhere Man. In what follows, I suggest that the network aesthetics of Nowhere Man intensifies contemporary immigrant writing's transnational impulse in that the novel's network-like form, which defies a single plot, refuses to firmly ground the migrant's story in the place of arrival. Instead, the narrative's inter-connected structure that organizes the migrant's experience around a series of encounters with the novel's narrators maps Pronek's transnational presence across a number of geographical locations including the homeland.
Plots give order to events and make events intelligible as a coherent story. As Peter Brooks remarks, plots "are not simply organizing structures, they are also intentional structures, goal-oriented and forward-moving" (12). Meanings develop from the structure of a plot through "temporal succession" (12). With each section differing in time and place and told by a different narrator, Nowhere Man defies the structure of a single plot. Key events informing each section are scattered across time and place and hold no direct relation to each other. It is through Pronek's recurring presence that we come to recognize the events of each section to be related. Because the novel refrains from fully confirming whether the Pronek introduced in a particular scene is the same character we formerly encountered in another section, the reader cannot be certain whether all the Proneks who appear in the novel are the same character or multiple figures that happen to share the same name. The striking similarities in familial background and personal history, however, suggest the Proneks to be versions of the same character.
An important shared feature among all the Proneks in the novel is that they grew up in Sarajevo and share similar histories of migration. It is often brought to the reader's attention that the Proneks appearing in the novel have lived in or visited a set of common places. For instance, in the novel's second section titled "Yesterday," Pronek is revealed to have visited Ukraine's Kiev as part of a summer program:
The same month, his father told him that a man he knew in the Association of Bosnian Ukrainians was looking for someone who wanted to go to a summer school in Kiev, to learn more about their heritage. Pronek had no interest in his heritage, as he had suffered through his father's histories, but he thought that leaving Sarajevo and the war in Croatia for a month would help his mental health. He went to Ukraine. But that is a different story, and I have never been in Ukraine--someone else will have to talk about that part of his life. (69)
Claiming that the time Pronek spent in Ukraine is "a different story," the narrator remarks that he can only account for Pronek's time in Sarajevo because he himself has not been in Ukraine. The inclusion of this seemingly minor comment, although introduced in a cursory manner, is structurally important because it establishes a significant link between "Yesterday" and the novel's other sections that refer to Pronek's stay in Kiev. The narrator's comment in the above passage helps the reader recognize the Proneks appearing later in the novel as versions of the same figure.
Reading the novel in light of Pronek's recurring presence, Nowhere Man conceives Pronek's migratory life through a transnational network of acquaintances and friends formed by processes of close contact. Such an emphasis upon a social network that is transnational in scope, a key feature of the novel's network aesthetics, displaces the teleology of settlement that has deeply informed conventional narratives of immigration. Several sections of Nowhere Man center upon Pronek's life in Chicago following his arrival to the United States. In "The Soldiers Coming," for instance, we meet Pronek "canvassing door to door" for Greenpeace (164). We learn that his life in the US has been shaped by a series of trials in order to survive as a migrant and refugee displaced by the war. The process of settlement, although introduced in several parts of the novel, does not occupy a central place in the novel. Instead, Nowhere Man maps the ways in which the novel's narrators come into contact with Pronek at various places preceding and following his arrival to the United States. The novel organizes the experience of migration around episodes of encounter and illuminates the migrant's presence in both the United States and Eastern Europe.
The Strength of Weak Ties
For some critics, the similarities between Pronek and the novel's multiple narrators suggest the possibility that the narrators are Pronek's doubles. (2) In several sections, for instance, the narrators find themselves placed in situations and conditions similar to those of Pronek. The narrator of the "Passover" section is, like Pronek, revealed to have grown up in Sarajevo and to have been recently displaced from the home country. Because the narrator has only limited knowledge of Pronek's current condition, we are not given much detail regarding Pronek's life in the United States. The fact that both run into each other at an ESL institution, however, suggests that they are newcomers to an English-speaking country. Similarly, Pronek and Victor, the narrator of "Fatherland," are visiting Kiev for a similar purpose. Although they were born and raised in the United States and the former Yugoslavia respectively, Victor and Pronek share ties to Ukraine as their ancestral homeland. Both have come to Kiev in order to attend a cultural program that gives them an opportunity to familiarize themselves with their ancestral homeland's language and culture.
Other critics, on the other hand, have pointed to the way Pronek and the narrators mirror various aspects of the author's own life. (3) Because of the striking similarities between Pronek and Hemon, Nowhere Man tends to be seen as an autobiographical fiction. Hemon, who was born in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia in 1964, worked as a journalist in Sarajevo after graduating from the University of Sarajevo with a degree in literature in 1990. Hemon came to the States in 1992 in order to attend a one-month-long cultural exchange program in Chicago. Due to the sudden outbreak of the Bosnian war during his stay in the States, the author was unable to return to Sarajevo. Like Pronek and some of the novel's narrators, Hemon himself had a variety of temporary jobs, including work as a Greenpeace canvasser, bike messenger, and ESL teacher during his early years of displacement in the United States. (4)
Such a reading, although invited by various moments of the novel, fails to adequately emphasize the way the excitements, hopes, and tensions informing moments of contact and encounter are central to the novel's insights into the precarious forms of life led by migrants displaced by the Bosnian war. The affective complexities accompanying moments of contact often illuminate how the home country's state of war impacts the everyday life of migrants and refugees living in exile. In Nowhere Man, encounters do not necessarily translate into strong, lasting ties. Yet, they are recognized by the narrators to have been memorable moments holding long-lasting effects on their minds. As one of the narrators admits, although time has passed since he met Pronek, he has become used to the fantasies of seeing Pronek again "as one gets used to the voices of the dead talking to him" (126).
In social network theory, the strength of a tie is determined by the levels of interaction, intimacy, and reciprocity. As Mark Granovetter has famously noted in his discussion of "the strength of weak social ties," strong ties usually refer to "small, well-defined groups" (1360). Relations informed by weak ties, on the other hand, are harder to define and often lack social recognition. According to Granovetter's thesis, however, weak ties can be enabling because they can bring us into contact with new people and communities. Weak social ties can widen the scope of our social networks in unforeseen ways in that they can introduce us to contacts that go beyond the boundaries of our familiar social networks.
Nowhere Man shares a keen interest in the strength of weak ties. The narrators form ties with Pronek. The ties, however, tend to be weak in that the narrators' affiliations with Pronek vary widely in their levels of intimacy and reciprocity. While some of the narrators are revealed to be Pronek's friends, others tend to be mere acquaintances or individuals that happened to live in the same city or neighborhood. Because we hear about Pronek from the perspective of the narrators, we are at times left unsure of the extent to which the relationship between the narrator and Pronek has been reciprocal. For instance, one of the narrators identifies himself as a fellow Sarajevan who used to live in Sarajevo during the time Pronek grew up in the city. He recalls Sarajevo in the eighties to have been "a beautiful place to be young" (49). It is because he lived in Sarajevo during those years that he holds memories of the city and Pronek. However, the novel's attention to weak social ties formed by the intimacies of transient encounters is critically enabling in that it widens the frame of reference for telling the migrant's story beyond the place of arrival. More specifically, by mapping weak social ties forged before and after Pronek's displacement from Sarajevo, Nowhere Man locates Pronek's migration within the context of Eastern Europe's rapidly changing political landscape and atmosphere during the late twentieth century.
The novel's keen interest in weak social ties can be linked to an observation one of the narrators makes early in the novel about the process of writing "a narrative of someone's life."
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. (41)
In this passage, the small and ephemeral are affirmed to be central to one's life narrative. Instead of prioritizing events that have been traditionally considered to hold importance in one's life, the narrator here affirms moments of life that appear to be rather "much too small to be recorded" as the real substance of life.
As if responding to the narrator's comment, Nowhere Man traces Pronek's migratory history through a multitude of details and microevents. At the level of prose style, the narrators' accounts of Pronek consist of very detailed observations. In a recent essay, Hemon explains that details in his stories of migration respond critically to the way migrants and refugees have been received by societies. He points out that "[t]he recent upsurge in bigotry directed at migrants and refugees is predictably contingent upon their dehumanization and deindividualization--they are presented and thought of as a mass of nothings and nobodies, driven, much like zombies, by an incomprehensible, endless hunger for what 'we' possess, for 'our' life" ("God's Fate" 92). According to Hemon, what literature can do is to restore the migrants' humanity by paying attention to the details that constitute their lives. "The very proposition of storytelling," he writes, "is that each life is a multitude of details, an irreplaceable combination of experiences, which can be contained in their totality only in narration" ("God's Fate" 92).
In Nowhere Man, details and microevents give visibility to the highly precarious and socially marginalized forms of life led by migrants and refugees displaced by the war. Nowhere Man creates an experience for the reader of closely engaging with the struggles of the migrant and refugee living in exile. The novel's first section features an unnamed narrator, a migrant from Bosnia displaced by the war. "Passover" unfolds over a single day and opens with a list of observations about the beginning of the narrator's day. "Had I been dreaming," states the narrator, "I would have dreamt of being someone else, with a little creature burrowed in my body, clawing at the walls inside my chest--a recurring nightmare. But I was awake, listening to the mizzle in my pillow, to the furniture furtively sagging, to the house creaking under the wind assaults" (3). We learn that the narrator has applied for an ESL teaching job "strictly out of despair" after having been laid off from a temporary job at a bookstore (4). He lists items he has started to sell in order to survive in the US. "I had spent my measly savings and was in the furniture-selling phase. I sold, for the total of seventy-four dollars, a decaying futon with a rich cat-barf pattern; a hobbly table with four chairs, inexplicably scarred, as if they had walked through fields of barbed wire" (5). The narrator's detailed account illuminates the poor living conditions as well as the level of despair and distress he has been enduring since his arrival to the States. Throughout the section, the unnamed narrator describes his life in the US as invisible and on the verge of disappearing. The way the novel pays attention to details, however, gives the narrator's vulnerable form of life a stark presence in the section.
Most strikingly, microevents taking the form of episodic encounters offer extended moments of reflection upon how the precarious nature of the migrant's life is intensified by the tensions of the war. In "Passover," while observing an ESL class during a job interview, the narrator recognizes a familiar face. "I remembered him, there he was, out of nowhere," observes the narrator; "I was bedazzled by the clarity of the memory" (24). The familiar face the narrator is surprised to see belongs to Jozef Pronek, a man he recalls as a former acquaintance with whom he grew up in pre-war Sarajevo. "Pronek looked up straight at me," says the narrator; "I didn't know if he could recognize me--I had changed a lot, having gone through a long and debilitating illness--but he was staring at me. I looked away, my heart thundering inside" (25). Following the narrator's memories, we learn that Pronek had been a newcomer to the neighborhood. Early interactions between the two are revealed to have been rather hostile. Although the narrator states that they ended up playing together, the relationship between the two is revealed to have never fully reached friendship. "They were not our enemies any longer, but they were not our friends either," recalls the narrator. "They were still newcomers, some of them spoke with strange non-Sarajevan accents, and we were the natives. We let them settle, but they were still in our land, and we never failed to let them know that" (24). Despite their growing intimacy, the tensions between the native and newcomer are revealed never to have been resolved.
The encounter's early excitement is further complicated by the tensions of the war. Upon seeing Pronek, the narrator finds himself asking the following questions: "How did he get here? Was he in Sarajevo under siege? Or was he besieging it? I hadn't talked to him in years, if ever. He leaned back in his chair, but my gaze was avoiding his. What should I say to him? What was his story?" (25). Not knowing what Pronek's political side might be, the narrator feels unsure how to address him. Although he feels excited to meet a former acquaintance, the moment of contact leads to feelings of uncertainty and ambivalence. Before leaving the classroom, the narrator takes a final look at Pronek: "As I was leaving the classroom, I glanced one more time at Pronek and he looked straight back at me, perhaps--and perhaps not--recognizing me. He still seemed angry" (25). Remaining undecided how to respond to the encounter, the narrator leaves the scene without seeking any further contact. Despite its transient nature, however, the moment of eye contact is singled out as a memorable event that offers the hope of re-connection in an isolating, foreign place.
In another section, intimate contact takes the form of a letter arriving from the homeland. The section titled "Translated by Jozef Pronek" reads as a letter written by Mirza, a character who had been introduced earlier in the novel as Pronek's best friend as he grew up in Sarajevo. (5) The letter opens with the following sentences: "Dear Jozef! Here I am writing you. Maybe you thought I am dead, but I am not. It is hard here, but we are happy that war is over. How are you? How is America? When are you going to come back?" (131). The opening remarks reveal that the war in Bosnia has ended. Mirza has written the letter out of an attempt to restore contact with Pronek, who has been away from Sarajevo during the war. The questions Mirza poses convey feelings of hope for renewed contact as well as Pronek's return. Because the section includes only Mirza's letter, we are not to know how Pronek answers the letter. We are not to know how Pronek has been doing in the United States during the war or whether he plans to return to Sarajevo. The section's title page only suggests that Pronek received the letter and translated it from Bosnian into English in December 1995.
Written from the perspective of a current citizen of Sarajevo, the letter offers an intimate account of life in Sarajevo during and after the war. The letter's content illuminates how the atrocities of the war have been experienced on a personal level. Mirza describes the deaths of individuals connected to Pronek's life: "One time I was with my friend Jasmin (you don't know him) and we are talking and I see red full stop on his forehead and one secund later his head explodes like pomegrante. That second when I see it but I cannot say nothing, because the death is very fast, that second is the worst second of my life" (131-32). The fact that the letter is addressed to a close friend who used to live in Sarajevo makes it possible for Mirza to talk about his wartime experience and post-war life in an intimate manner. By writing the letter, Mirza is able to share feelings of fear, helplessness, and frustration. Repeatedly, Mirza states that he needs someone who can listen to his stories. "I am sorry I talk too much," Mirza writes towards the end of the letter; "We in Sarajevo have nobody to talk, just each other, nobody wants to listen to these stories. I cannot talk more. You talk now. I am waiting for your letter" (134). Mirza concludes the letter by asking Pronek to inform him of his life away from Sarajevo.
Unlike Mirza who actively gets to talk about the war, Pronek only gets to serve as the receiver and translator of another person's letter in this section. The absence of Pronek's voice could be seen to reflect his absence from Sarajevo during and after the war. Pronek gains access to life in post-war Sarajevo only with the end of the war. At the same time, however, the fact that the section consists of only Mirza's letter illuminates how the migrant's years of exile are deeply informed by the pain of having to observe his home country's war from a distance. Contact was lost during the war, and Mirza's comments reveal that Pronek had to watch the war without knowing the whereabouts of his closest friend. It is only with the end of the war that contact is restored.
The Pronek Fantasies
As earlier parts of this essay have shown, the ways Hemon's novel traces the affective complexities of weak social ties provide deep insights into the experiences of migrants and refugees displaced by the Bosnian war. Many of the novel's sections either directly or indirectly make reference to different stages of the wars in Bosnia. In particular, the ongoing tensions of the war are revealed to affect migrants preceding and following their arrival to the United States. In "Fatherland," the narrator notes that Pronek had decided to attend the cultural program in Kiev "to be away for a little while from 'crazy things' in Yugoslavia" (80). Although the section is set in Ukraine's Kiev, we are informed that Pronek's decision to visit Ukraine is linked to the rise in tension and conflict in his homeland.
Not limited to the Bosnian war, the novel's interconnected structure locates Pronek's migratory history within the larger context of the rapidly changing political landscape of late twentieth-century Eastern Europe. In particular, the novel's network aesthetics brings into conversation a number of historical events unfolding in varied parts of Eastern Europe that surround the outbreak of the war. Sections set in the US tend to refer to the wars in Bosnia and their impact upon the migrant's life in exile, whereas the sections preceding the Bosnian war offer accounts of major shifts in the political climate in former Yugoslavia and its neighboring regions. The sections "Yesterday" and "Fatherland," for instance, map how Pronek's displacement from Sarajevo is closely linked to a number of historical events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of nationalist discourse in Eastern Europe.
A striking feature of the novel's engagement with late twentieth-century Eastern European history is that Hemon's juxtaposition of episodes of encounter with historical events invites us to reflect upon notions of unity sponsored by the nation and state with suspicion and critical distance. In "Fatherland," the section's narrator, Victor Plavchuk, attends a summer program in Kiev designed to invite youth of the Ukrainian diaspora to connect with their ancestral roots. The program sponsored by the government is shown to have attracted youth of Ukrainian descent from various countries. Victor is a Ukrainian American whose father left Ukraine during the Second World War. As Ukraine achieves national independence from the former Soviet Union during Victor's stay in Kiev, the timing of Victor's visit gains vast historical importance in light of Ukraine's national history. Throughout the section, however, Victor has limited interest in learning the nation's history, language, or culture. During his visit to Lvov, the city where his father was born, Victor confesses that he had "little interest in seeking it out" (91). Instead, Victor's memories of his ancestral homeland center on his interactions with Pronek, which are increasingly informed by feelings of love and desire. As the narrator remarks, "I had never been attracted to a man before. It frightened me, and it was hard sometimes to discern between fear and arousal: the darkness throbbed around me, in harmony with my heart" (109).
Over the course of the section, Victor's unrequited love gives rise to a series of fantasies. Fantasies affirming Victor's feelings of love gain a critical dimension in that they rewrite moments of history. One incident particularly stands out as a denning moment when fantasies begin to forcefully intervene in historical events. It occurs while President George Bush delivers a speech in Kiev. On that day, Victor singles out Pronek among the crowd of people gathered to see the American president and listen to the delivery of his speech. "I spotted Jozef in the crowd, his face beaming out of the crowd's grayness, standing close to the stage, with his hands in his pockets, Andrea next to him," recalls Victor (104). We are told that Pronek suddenly approaches the president right after the speech: "And then Bush came off the stage and after a sequence of microevents that I cannot recall--you must imagine my shock--Jozef was standing in front of Bush, behind the moat of the bodyguards' menacing presence, his face extraordinarily beautiful, as if an angelic beam of light were cast on his face" (105). After asking Pronek's name, Bush states, "This place is holy ground. May God bless your country, son"; "It's not my country," Pronek answers (106). When Pronek corrects Bush by stating that he is from Bosnia, the answer he receives is, "It's all one big family, your country is. If there is misunderstanding, you oughtta work it out" (106). Victor further observes that "Bush nodded, heartily agreeing with himself while Pronek "stood still, his body taut and his smile lingering on his face, bedazzled by the uncanniness" (106). It is in the midst of witnessing Pronek challenge the president's statement that Victor makes the following confession:
I knew then that I was in love with Jozef. I wanted Bush to embrace him, to press his cheek against Jozef, to appreciate him, maybe kiss him. I wanted to be Bush at that moment and face Jozef armed with desire... I replay this scene like a tape, rewinding it, slowing it down, trying to pin down the moment when our comradeship slipped into desire--the transition is evanescent, like the moment when the sun's rays change their angle, the light becomes a hairbreadth softer, and the world slides with nary a blink from summer into fall. (106)
The confession is striking for several reasons. It is the first time that Victor openly acknowledges an overlooked dimension of his feelings for Pronek, but it also gains further meaning when read in light of the scene's historical context. In August 1991, former President Bush did visit Kiev in order to placate the growing demand for Ukraine's national independence from the Soviet Union. It was soon after the visit that the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained national independence. By blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, Hemon revises a moment of US intervention. The way Victor brings attention to Pronek's presence displaces the centrality of Bush's voice and presence. Pronek counters Bush's monolithic view of the region. He challenges the assumed notions of shared brotherhood and unity among Eastern European states under communism. Furthermore, Victor's fantasy rewrites a moment of US intervention into a moment of love. By envisioning Bush embracing and kissing Pronek, the fantasy gives shape to a form of unity that competes with Bush's notion of unity. It is much smaller in scale, yet holds much more meaning for Victor.
Through other moments of fantasy, Nowhere Man further challenges nation-based notions of unity and belonging. While joining Pronek at a demonstration for Ukraine's national freedom, Victor contemplates the moment of a kiss. "So I turned to him and grabbed his face with both of my hands, and pressed my lips against his, feeling the air coming out of his nostrils on my cheek" (123). Aware that this act "could have seemed a typically Slavic outpouring of brotherly feelings," he emphasizes that it is a kiss entangled with different meanings (123). "We kissed," states Victor, "for an eternity, could not separate" (123). We soon learn, however, that this kiss never really happened and is a version of another fantasy Victor secretly entertained while "[p]eople cheered, and applauded, and sang songs about freedom" (124-25). The kiss remains an event that did not happen: "I never kissed Jozef. I pretended to be listening carefully to the speakers, while I was trying to make a decision... dizzyingly aware all along how impossible it was" (125). The presence of homo-erotic desire in this scene disrupts a moment of strong nationalist feeling. The moment's excitement makes it possible to contemplate the possibilities of Victor and Pronek uniting. On the same day, Ukraine's independence is declared. During the days following the declaration, "Exhilarated gangs of newly independent Ukrainians" are depicted to roam the streets "with blue-and-yellow flags" (125). Instead of joining the crowd in rejoicing the nation's regained freedom, Victor remembers the day for something that did not occur, "the non-kiss" (125). By featuring Victor as someone who does not readily join and embrace the excitements of strong nationalist feeling and rather observes his ancestral homeland's declaration of independence with emotional distance, Nowhere Man asks us to recognize a key moment of Ukraine's national history while remaining suspicious of nationalism's promises.
In this essay, I have traced how Hemon's treatment of migration in Nowhere Man departs from familiar features of immigrant writing. Nowhere Man refuses to think about migration through the teleology of settlement. Towards the end of the novel, we are left unsure where Pronek currently lives and has settled. Instead, the novel's network-like, plotless form asks us to conceive Pronek's life in deliberately non-teleological terms. By mapping Pronek's presence across a number of cities spanning the US and Eastern Europe, Hemon's novel invokes a decentered frame that is transnational in scope for thinking about displacement and exile in light of the Bosnian war. The way Nowhere Man chooses to tell the migrant's story reflects a network-centered understanding of today's world. By illuminating Pronek's life as embedded in a transnational network of acquaintances and friends, Hemon's novel depicts how one's life in the late twentieth century is informed by a growing sense of transnational contact and interconnection. By thinking beyond the place of arrival, Nowhere Man's network aesthetics introduces a transnational narrative of migration that interrogates the promises of nation-based notions of unity and belonging.
INCHEON NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
(1) For a general overview of how networks emerged as a powerful concept in the twentieth century for mapping and understanding complex systems across various fields, sec Barabasi.
(2) See Irr 675-76.
(3) For a discussion of the biographical impulse underlying Hemon's writing, sec Jaggi and Ward.
(4) In various interviews, Hemon has talked about the struggles of his early years of living in the United States after being abruptly displaced by the outbreak of the Bosnian war. For detailed discussions regarding how the experiences of displacement and exile have impacted Hemon's work, see Boswell and Knight.
(5) Mirza first appears in the novel's second section titled "Yesterday."
Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo. Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life. New York: Plume, 2003.
Boswell, Timothy. "The Audacity of Despair: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon." Studies in the Novel 41.2 (2015): 246-66.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1984.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2019|
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