Jozef Pronek, as a teenager in Sarajevo, loves the Beatles, and, not surprisingly, forms a band with other young people, all of whom, like Jozef, have dreams but no prospects, their favorite song being "Nowhere Man." Later, almost by accident, Jozef finds himself living in Chicago, thousands of miles from the Balkan war which is destroying his country, still without prospects. As he and several named and unnamed narrators relate episodes from Jozef's unfocused life throughout the 1990's, the story jumps from Chicago to Sarajevo to Kiev and Shanghai, following no sequential order, and always returning to the controlling idea that "There was a hole in the world, and I fit right into it; if I perished, the hole would just close, like a scar healing..."
Hemon, a Sarajevo native who didn't begin writing in English until 1995, achieves immense power by keeping his sentence structure simple, acutely observing the minutiae of Jozef's life, meticulously selecting images which are both visually and emotionally memorable, then firing them at us in a staccato series of flashes. Just before a job interview, for example, Jozef recalls smashing cardboard boxes, a cat eating the head of a mouse, the Bosnian war as seen on TV, and a passing driver pointing a finger at him and pretending to shoot. Boiling eggs are seen as "iris-less eyes," and he has "butterflies in [his] stomach, ripping off one another's wings." With irony and dark humor, he recalls a woman calling out to her lost dog, "Lucky Boy," while a young ESL teacher addresses her class as "you guys" and conducts lessons about Siamese twins.
Jozef is a character with whom most readers will empathize, and as we view his life at home and abroad, we root for his success at the same time that we fear his failure. "The possibility that the world can never respond to [Jozef's] desires torture[s] him." Because separating Jozef from all his fantasies is not always easy, some readers may still be wondering at the end of the novel, "Who is Jozef Pronek, really?" and his world, in which an "omniscient, omnipotent, but not necessarily benevolent being" is in control, will not appeal to everyone. For those who love language used in fresh ways, however, this novel offers innumerable delights and great satisfaction. Mary Whipple