The Nowhere Man
With the late Bekim Sejranović’s award-winning novel From Nowhere to Nowhere appearing in English for the first time, we look back at the career of an extravagantly talented writer
Sejranović’s untimely death at the age of 49 robbed the European literary scene of one of its most distinct and engaging voices
Towards the end of the not-so-holiday-season of summer 2020, there was a flurry of travel articles announcing the second coming of the digital nomad, the remote worker who could solve the stay-home-or-return-to-the-office dilemma by dragging his or her laptop off to other countries for short, productive bursts of away-from-it-all concentration. Various words were adopted to make this sound like a new trend: “half-tourists” would be going on a “half-cations”, making use of the cheap short-term rentals made available by the current decline in mainstream tourism. The question of where they could actually travel to without the need for quarantine was left to the imagination. As the travel industry and its PR feeding chain needs to keep on reminding us, however, it is still our birthright to pack a cute wheeled suitcase and boldly chase our dream.
Some are born nomads, some achieve nomadism, and some have nomadism thrust upon them, to paraphrase a man who travelled widely in his plays but didn’t get much further than London in his own life. Travel is certainly not a birthright for all, and if recent events have taught us anything, it is that free movement is not free for everyone, and that borders can close just as easily as they can open.
Bekim Sejranović’s novel From Nowhere to Nowhere tells the story of a man who spent his childhood in Bosnia, his formative teenage years in the Croatian port of Rijeka, and then, with the collapse of the Yugoslav federation, suddenly found himself a refugee, lacking the relevant papers for the republic he was currently living in. He applies for asylum in Norway, learns the language, and teaches for a while at the university where he also gains a master’s degree. However he spends much of his adulthood flitting from one abode to another, no longer feeling at home in any of the places that have thus far marked his life. Possession of a Norwegian passport does ensure that, for him at least, the world’s borders remain open. But the fact remains that the country of his birth no longer exists, and the question of home remains unresolved.
The book’s narrator is the literary avatar of its author Bekim Sejranović, the Bosnian-Croatian-Norwegian novelist born in the northeastern Bosnian town of Brčko in 1972. Sejranović’s sudden and untimely death at the age of 49 in May 2020 robbed the European scene of one of its most distinct and engaging voices, a consummately gifted storyteller who acted as a wry, melancholic, but never less than entertaining guide to a somewhat dispersed stomping ground that spread from Oslo to Zagreb, Rijeka, and Brčko. The English version of From Nowhere to Nowhere (translated with customary fluency and panache by Will Firth) should have been the international breakthrough of an accomplished mid-career writer. Sadly, Sejranović will not be around to reap the rewards.
Sejranović leaves a substantial body of work behind him, all of which has been met with the kind of critical acclaim that builds a major career. His first novel. From Nowhere to Nowhere (Nigdje, niotkuda in the original) catapulted him straight into the literary big league by winning the Meša Selimović Prize in 2009. Awarded to writers from across the Croatian-Bosnian-Serbian-Montenegrin region, it’s one of the most prestigious literary gongs you can get. From Nowhere was followed by Ljepši kraj (a play on words which can mean “A Better Place” or “A Nicer Ending”; 2010), Sandale (“Sandals”; 2013), Tvoj sin Huckleberry Finn (“Your Son Huckleberry Finn”; 2015) and Dnevnik jednog nomada (“Diary of a Nomad”; 2017). Although all of the above are classified as “novels”, each of them blends elements of autobiography, fiction, essays, and travelogue.
Spliffs and parties
From Nowhere to Nowhere begins as family chronicle, exploring the protagonist’s family tree before moving on to cover an unsettled adulthood spent shuttling between countries, jobs and partners. The voice is chatty and confiding, and the structure of the novel is deceptively loose, as if the author is jotting things down as they come to mind. Sejranović writes like the kind of raconteur who is constantly tugging at your elbow because he’s got another tale to tell. However the way in which he suggestively plants information and then comes out with plot-twisting revelations later on reveals the true measure of his authorial guile.
The protagonist of From Nowhere… appreciates Norway for taking him in, but despises the country for its middle-class sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy, It is a country which will never quite accept him as one of their own. His native Bosnia, on the other hand, is no longer the same country as the one in which he grew up. He is a foreigner there too.
His lack of a firm anchor lies partly in the fact that he has an insatiable appetite for self-destruction, screwing up jobs and relationships, drinking to excess, indulging in far too many drugs. From Nowhere is a book full of spliffs, parties, after-parties, hangovers and weird sex, a merry-go-round which the narrator can never quite get to stop. “I read somewhere in Danilo Kiš that the only cure for a hangover was suicide” he says after one particular bender. The protagonist of From Nowhere (indeed the same protagonist stalks all of Seijranović’s books) strides across the pages in the manner of a grand literary creation, a man of larger than life appetites but egalitarian instincts, swaggeringly individualistic yet humane and self-deprecating.
The narrator’s narcotic haze of self-pity never obscures his empathy for those who did less well than himself. One of his short-lived jobs is acting as an interpreter for ex-Yugoslav asylum seekers being interrogated by Norwegian immigration officers. “I knew how they felt, I knew what it was like to sit on the other side of a table, look into the indifferent faces of bureaucrats, and hope that the size of your misfortune was sufficient for them not to send you back to where you were expelled from.”
It’s passages like these that provide sober reflection on a contemporary Europe full of restless souls, people for whom the squeak of the wheeled suitcase means rather more than just a holiday. More specifically, the novel evokes the experience of a lost generation who grew up in Yugoslavia only to be forced into improvising a life elsewhere, and will for the rest of their lives feel geographically and psychologically somewhere in-between. The protagonist himself feels as if he has spent much of his adult existence “in temporary accommodation, hotels, reception centres, bachelor hostels and semiprivate rooms. Eternal moves with one box of books and one bag of clothes… Running from back rent, excuses for late payment, paranoid of someone knocking at the door, inventing identities, insecure when asked questions like: ‘Who are you, what do you do, where are you from, where do you live?”“
Following a break-up with girlfriend Selma, the narrator spends a year working as a librarian on the island of “S” (his curiously half-hearted attempt to disguise the identity of the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen). He finds himself in a polar bear-encircled settlement where there are “no permanent inhabitants”, only people who come to work for a year or two and then return to the mainland. Populated by misfits and mavericks doing short-term jobs, “S” is a strange geographical parallel to Sejranović’s own existence as a habitual nomad with no fixed abode.
In book after book, Sejranović’s narrator tires of Norway without ever feeling that he has another home to go to. In both From Nowhere to Nowhere and A Nicer Ending the main protagonist hides out at his grandfather’s “ranch” near Brčko in Bosnia. In Your Son Huckleberry Finn he lives on a boat moored beside the River Sava. Moving to Zagreb in Diary of a Nomad, he rents an old wooden house in the commuter village of Velika Mlaka rather than in the city itself – there’s a strange mixture of solitude and impermanence about all these abodes, as if he is seeking refuge from some trauma before moving on.
Tales from the riverbank
Now that From Nowhere… is out in English it is to be hoped that Sejranović’s other works will be translated too. A Nicer Ending is his most assured novel, with the narrator recounting events from two strands of his recent past (one in Norway, one in Bosnia). He tells the stories in parallel, keeping the reader guessing till the end about the outcome of both. However it is Your Son Huckleberry Finn that is arguably Sejranović’s masterpiece, an unclassifiable collection of flashbacks and ruminations revolving around an epic boat trip down the River Sava, from Brčko in Bosnia to Belgrade in Serbia, where the river joins the Danube. The boat party (comprising Sejranović, a Norwegian friend, and a Japanese film director who is making a documentary about the trip) were planning to sail all the way to the Black Sea, but realized that their small outboard-powered boat would never make the trip. Indeed the journey at the heart of the novel never quite seems to get going; Bekim has so many tales to tell, too many spliffs to roll, and one dope-scented digression drifts effortlessly into another. The stop-start voyage downriver conjures up life’s habit of serving up half-baked dreams and missed opportunities. And for an unsettled spirit like Sejranović, one suspects that the broad, expressionless and unforgiving River Sava, cutting through the heart of a Yugoslavia that no longer exists, is the only true homeland he has.
Although all of Sejranović’s books share the same first-person narrator, the same locations and the same themes, they are not laid out in chronological order, and do not add up to an easily readable autobiography. Too many of the important details contradict themselves; too many of the key relationships are reinvented from book to book. In a way Sejranović’s collected works amount to the endless retelling of the same story – how he ended up in bloody Norway of all places, and how he could never totally leave - but it is a story told with such an infectious mixture of vivacity, invention and authentic pathos that you wouldn’t mind at all if he wrote five more books about exactly the same things.
As the narrator of From Nowhere to Nowhere reveals, he once told his Norwegian girlfriend Sara that he was Irish, and she carried on believing this for years. “Because a lie, like a good story, and art in general, is nothing other than the craft of making up details.”
From Nowhere to Nowhere by Bekim Sejranović (trans. Will Firth) is published by Sandorf.
© Jonathan Bousfield