Saturday 13 September 2008

raising the dead

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.


Anonymous,  14 September 2008 at 10:05  

I read this a couple of months ago and never got around to writing it up because I couldn't decide what I thought of it. I really enjoyed the 1908 sections, but the modern day sections less so. However I wasn't sure if my lukewarm response was justified as I kind of rushed the second half of the book to get it finished before I went on holiday. I have hung onto it though to revisit and reconsider.

There are indeed some lovely phrases in it, like in the opening scene, when smoke from a gun "moves across the room like a shoal of fish" (to paraphrase).

William Rycroft 14 September 2008 at 10:10  

Couldn't agree with you more John and weirdly I very nearly used that quote in my review.

I have, by the way, just received my copy of Tobias Wolff's 'Our Story Begins' after your glowing review. I've still got Cheever on the go however and am finding it difficult to make time for reading at the moment so I may be some time as someone once said (although with more poignancy than me obviously).

Anonymous,  14 September 2008 at 15:42  

Well, I'm sure the surviving descendants of Captain Oates will appreciate the publicity anyway!

I do look forward to hearing what you have to say about Wolff. I have so many books of stories sitting around - Cheever, Jhumpa Lahiri, Francis Wyndham, Cynthia Ozick, Maeve Brennan - that I really need to find a way to get through them. I think one story each time I finish a novel might be the way forward.

Posh Totty 16 September 2008 at 03:05  

Just popping in to say Hi, was sent here via my black box :o) Xx

Anonymous,  16 September 2008 at 11:27  

Hi there, just popped down from Edinburgh via black boxes.

William Rycroft 16 September 2008 at 18:33  

Welcome both of you. Hope your journey wasn't too bad hullabrouhaha and loving the moniker posh totty!

Dave 17 September 2008 at 00:34  

Got here via Black Boxes - ta for the Vampire Weekend remix.

Anonymous,  17 September 2008 at 03:20  


Just wanted to say hi. I came here via "the black box". :)

Wanderlust Scarlett 17 September 2008 at 20:46  

This Little Black Box is really something else, isn't it?

I was curious about this book. What a good review; thanks for that.
Did you ever hear the song that Andrea Bocelli and Holly Stell did for The Lazarus Project?

I think quality paper is essential in a good read.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore (the Shameless Lion)

William Rycroft 17 September 2008 at 22:47  

Thanks Scarlett. After a quick search I think the song you mean was from a film called The Lazarus Child, starring Andy Garcia, and about a girl in a coma (which reminds me of another song...)

Dave, I've just been to your site and have to know whether your book is about Bromley as in Kent. Because I grew up there! (well near enough) If the Black Box has that kind of power I truly am in awe.

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