I stumbled across this book somewhat randomly: I was at a conference at the University of Virginia, and during a break, I went over to the campus bookstore and browsed the textbook section, looking at what books had been assigned for what lit classes. It's interesting to me to see what kind of stuff people are expected to be reading when learning about a given topic in literature. I don't remember what course this book was assigned for, but it looked fascinating, so I bought it (thereby possibly depriving some student from the class of his/her required reading... ah well).
Anyways, I really, really liked this book. It's a complex, beautiful novel that I will definitely need to re-read someday, hopefully when I'm not on painkillers. The blurb on the back is, as they tend to be, rather useless. It claims that the book is all about the adventures of Jozef Pronek, who is always at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sounds interesting, but really misses the point of the book, I think. Though indeed, the text does, to a large extent, follow Pronek around, it's not entirely about him. The narrator is a mysterious figure; it's unclear whether it's actually the same person narrating the whole time, and there's evidence to suggest both that it is and that it isn't. There are also signs that the narrator is only narrating his fantasies, or just telling stories, rather than describing "reality". Pronek is certainly the main topic, one could say, but the book is far more complex than that. The beginning and final segments, for instance, are hardly, if at all, about Pronek. It seems to be more about what the narrator thinks about Pronek, which is somewhat different. There are also many moments where the narrator intrudes upon his descriptions of Jozef with his own thoughts and memories. Really, unless one decides that it's one narrator throughout and attempts to make a thematic link, some parts of the text don't seem to relate to the rest at all. Some reviewers on amazon.com complain that the book isn't cohesive enough to be a novel, but it does seem to hold itself together somehow - it didn't feel fragmented to me at all. But if you start thinking about it, it does unravel a bit - it's hard to say what holds it together, but something certainly does.
What's really outstanding in the book is the use of language - Harmon really has a way with words, and the descriptions are just phenomenal. He captures a lot of the tiny, somewhat unflattering details of people in wonderful ways. There's a moment, for instance, when Pronek is at a job interview, and the narrator tells us that he's clenched his ass to avoid letting out a fart. It's not the kind of thing you read about often in novels, but it does make the characters seem more real. Bodies are generally well described in the book, as these curiously beautiful yet fragile things.
The multi-nationalism aspect is also well done. Books about exiles from Eastern Europe, really from anywhere, tend to go to extremes to see people of different nationalities as being radically different, and generally resort to really trite stereotypes to highlight these differencs. This book refuses such clunky generalizations, yet does maintain a sense of foreignness with the American characters (as viewed from the perspective of an Eastern European) that is quite apt.
What's also incredible about the book is the way that it describes the former Yugoslavia, and the war there. It's a topic that hasn't gotten that much airtime in literature, curiously enough, and it's written about in an extremely powerful way. I think that one tends to think of the Balkans as having been fighting for ages, as though it's some kind of stable situation that everyone has gotten used to, and you don't think about how the people there cope with seeing people close to them dying, seeing the local streets in ruins, etc. It's pretty eye-opening to read about.
All in all then, a marvelous book, highly recommended.