Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On Aleksandar Hemon's Novel "The Lazarus Project"

Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Lazarus Project” is a postmodern novel that lays down two story lines and weaves them together. One is the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish man who fled the pogroms of Ukraine for Chicago. The novel starts off in Lazarus’ world like so: “The time and place are the only things I am certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago.” This is the date of Lazarus’ death, the day he is killed by a police officer and painted (falsely?) as an anarchist assassin. The other story line belongs to Brik, a compulsive and overdramatic writer living in post-9/11 Chicago. Brik becomes obsessed with the life and death of this Lazarus Averbuch, so he sets out to trace the dead man’s steps for clues, answers, a story.

Brik is an odd guy, a dissatisfied man who is too busy dreaming about what his life could be that he can’t figure out what his life actually is. “All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere,” Brik writes. “That is all that the world is.” Brik says goodbye (temporarily?) to his girlfriend and sets out with a former war photographer to capture the story of Lazarus for his book. The two travel to Bosnia, Moldova and Ukraine. Having lived several years in Ukraine and traveled much around this part of the world, I’m amazed at how well Hemon captures the essence of places and people. Hemon takes me right back to Ukraine when he describes driving through the fertile plains in perfect poetry: “Fields of coy sunflowers, hills reticulated with untended vineyards, hutlike houses huddles in shallow misty valleys – they all passed us as in a dream, accompanied by jumpy Russian disco Seryozha found on his radio.”

It must be nearly impossible for a writer to tell a story based in Bosnia without talking about war. Hemon offers a sober look at what happens in war, how it’s terrible legacy lasts much longer than the fighting itself. “In the beginning, every war has a neat logic: they want to kill us, we want not to die. But with time it becomes something else, the war becomes this space where anybody can kill anybody at any time, where everybody wants everybody dead, because the only way you are sure to stay alive is if everybody else is dead.”

It's tough for a writer to transition back and forth between Eastern Europe in the 2000s to Chicago in the 1900s, but Hemon pulls it off seamlessly. He’s so good at describing people and places that I always felt like I knew where I was in space and time.

I’ve always been fascinated with Chicago around the turn of the 20th Century. (Click here to read “When Justice Kills: Love and Anarchy in 1880s Chicago,” my review of novel about the the Haymarket Square riots and the life and death of anarchist Albert Parsons.) Hemon does a great job describing the counter-revolutionary fervor of the elites in Chicago’s media and political spheres. The newspapers of the time call for the “extermination” of “the anarchist vermin that infest Chicago.” They proclaim: “every loyal citizen will be called up to achieve this job of housecleaning. The authors of seditious utterances will be prosecuted.”

I'm a huge fan of Hemon's short stories (especially his 2001 collection "The Question of Bruno"), and this book has me convinced that he's a writer to watch in the coming years. If you have any experience or interest in Chicago, Ukraine, Bosnia and Serbia, you'll love this book because it will take you to these places. Hemon is an immensely talented writer with a lot of imagination, and he shows the reader all he’s got with this book. 4.5/5 stars? How’s this: If this book were a bottle of wine, I’d give it a solid 90 points.

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