The Lazarus Project
by Aleksandar Hemon
In 2004 Aleksandar Hemon was awarded a 'genius grant' by the McArthur Foundation for those who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." Hemon, who was born in Sarajevo but now lives in Chicago, only began writing in English in 1995 (having only started to learn it properly in 1992). Since then his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Esquire and two books, The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man, have earned him critical praise and comparisons to Conrad, Kafka and Camus amongst others. This latest novel, nurtured by that genius grant, is my first experience of his writing and despite my best efforts to be carried away by it, it never quite worked for me. It is a novel brimming over with ideas and creativity and yet it never quite took off.
The novel is made up of two stories. In the first we have Brik, a Bosnian now living in Chicago who is awarded a grant to help him research and write a book. Remind you of anyone?. Brik travels with his friend Rora, a photographer, across Europe to Chisinau in Moldova in order to find out more about Lazarus Averbuch, a Jew who fled the pogroms at the turn of the last century and emigrated to Chicago only to be shot by the chief of police for no apparent reason. It is Lazarus' story that is our second strand except that with so little material to go on it's really the story of his sister Olga and the climate of fear surrounding first the pogroms and later the similar feelings of terror created in Chicago by the rise of anarchism. This was the first problem for me as I was expecting to find out more about the real life murder of this simple man. As another reviewer has pointed out there are echoes of Jean Charles de Menezes and for many readers the spectre of terror in a city and scapegoating will be all too clear and resonant.
There are plenty of parallels between the two stories of course, something which Hemon fosters by having characters share names or physical attributes (a glass eye makes a couple of gruesome appearances) and by allowing Lazarus to actually intrude on Brik's sections as the book progresses. Brik's journey becomes one not so much of research but of discovery about himself. Through his travels he finds not only a subject to write on but is forced to confront the realities of life in the city he left behind before the siege of Sarajevo destroyed so many lives. His friend Rora knows all about it having worked with a reporter during the siege and witnessed the brutality of a Bosnian gangster named Rambo. Brik's incessant questions take their toll on him.
Let me tell you what the problem is, Brik. Even if you knew what you want to know, you would still know nothing. You ask questions, you want to know more, but no matter how much I tell you, you will never know anything. That's the problem.
And that's partly our problem too. Brik is a difficult narrator to like. His relationship with his wife, a successful brain surgeon, is unconvincing. His own friend doesn't seem to like him very much and in a similar way to the narrator in Rawi Hage's 'De Niro's Game', he is slow to develop in what is a relatively short book. The dawning realisation that he's a bit of a fraud isn't much of a payback for the reader. It is Rora who becomes the more interesting character oddly enough.
Hemon has been praised for his use of English with words like 'fresh' and 'lyrical' cropping up regularly. He certainly has a way with a phrase like the Bentley he describes; 'the seats made of leather so fine that you could hear the spirits of the slaughtered calves sigh'. Or the group of American soldiers he sees in Germany, heading to Iraq 'checking out the virgins, relishing their last hours before returning to a life of manual self-abuse, trigger happiness, and a possible limb by limb entry into eternity'. But the dark humour and flourishes aren't enough to cover a deficiency in our emotional involvement in the story. The story of Lazarus and his family could have been that emotional core but those sections of the book are much shorter and feel all too brief. It's a shame that the research wasn't allowed to take centre stage rather than the naval gazing of a writer finding his way. I'm sounding very down on it and I don't mean to because there is so much to admire in this book. I just couldn't really connect with it despite a rallying finish.
A quick gripe about the edition too. The chapters are clearly marked by black pages which show photos, some taken by Hemon's photographer friend Velibor Božović and others from The Chicago Historical Society. It is a shame that the publishers have elected to use such cheap paper as it really doesn't show the pictures off to great effect (the typeface is terribly printed as well, spotted like newsprint - but now I'm getting prissy). Whilst he hasn't quite managed the feat of bringing Lazarus Averbuch back to life Hemon certainly provides an insight into the life lived in fear and has marked himself in my mind as a writer to keep an eye on.