When Josef Pronek was born in the Sarajevo maternity hospital on Sept. 10, 1967, no one warned him his fictional fate would fall into the hands of the novelist Alexandar Hemon. Pronek might have wormed backward to the womb, or so Hemon would have us believe.
A Bosnian who moved to Chicago in the early 1990s, Hemon births Pronek to tell of himself: “Your memories become fantasies if they are not shared, and your life in all its triviality becomes a legend.” Pronek’s sundry travels (Sarajevo, Ukraine, Chicago) are a comic séance of cultural misunderstandings. When Hemon sticks to Pronek’s story — regrettably, he strays — the novel soars. Pronek’s boss at a Chicago detective agency demands that he serve court paper on a wild Serb named Brdjanin. “Are you a Serb or a Muslim?” asks his boss. “I am complicated,” replies Pronek.
Hemon, who (like Conrad) learned English late, works from a typical first-generation script: the odyssey of the displaced man trying to invent America from foreign experience. Pronek wryly mocks his odd command of English (“everything in the supermarket has a nonnegotiable name”) in the most persuasive possible way — by outwriting most natives.