May 7, 2008
THE LAZARUS PROJECT
By Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead Books, 292 pages, $24.95
A haunting, 100-year-old photograph faces page 53 of The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon's second novel and third book: A top-hatted gentleman with a neatly trimmed white beard stands behind a younger man, more shabbily dressed and slumped in a chair. He holds the young man's head in his hands and looks straight at the camera; the young man's eyes are half closed and appear crossed. The men's names are etched onto the photo: Standing is Captain Evans, of the Chicago police department, and sitting is Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant, just 19 years old, who, when this photograph was taken, had very recently been shot and killed by Chicago's Chief of Police.
The killing of Lazarus Averbuch is depicted in the book's first chapter. Then we meet the book's narrator, Vladimir Brik, whose background parallels that of Aleksandar Hemon himself: a Bosnian who came to Chicago in his 20s, just before the siege of Sarajevo, and stayed there. Brik has gone from odd jobs to teaching ESL to writing a low-paying column about the immigrant experience. As the book opens, he's hoping for a grant to write a book about Averbuch, who survived a pogrom in the Ukraine only to be killed a few months after arriving in the U.S. One night in March of 1908 Averbuch went, for reasons uknown, to the house of Chief George Shippy, who suspected the young man was an anarchist and shot him seven times.
The Lazarus Project alternates between Averbuch's story and the journey of Brik and his old friend Rora, first to Averbuch's native Ukraine, then to Sarajevo. The charismatic and cynical Rora lived in Bosnia during the war, taking photographs and doing other work for a powerful thug named Rambo; he was also a fixer for a reporter named Miller. Now he takes pictures for Brik, documenting their journey. These photographs—taken in fact by Velibor Božović, a photographer and old friend of Mr. Hemon's—adorn alternate chapters of the book; the others are fronted by photos from Averbuch's era.
This dual structure is fairly simple by Mr. Hemon's standards: The stories in his remarkable first book, The Question of Bruno, are frequently fragmentary, sometimes footnoted, and stunningly varied, while his even better first novel, Nowhere Man, has multiple, indeterminate narrators and a concluding chapter with no obvious connection to what comes before. The Lazarus Project is, on the surface, less difficult; the prose, too, is more plain, mostly without the wild juxtapositions seen in the earlier books. It's still beautiful, though: After Shippy shoots Averbuch, we see "the gun smoke slowly moving across the room, like a school of fish."
The quieter approach lends itself to the material—particularly the devastating story of Olga Averbuch, Lazarus's sister. Fierce and complicated, full of grief and anger, she wrestles with the uncertainty about what happened to her brother and the impossibility of writing her mother back home with the news. There are echoes here of an earlier Hemon story, "A Coin," about a Bosnian man in the U.S. and a woman he knows still in Sarajevo.
Such parallels abound in The Lazarus Project: Lazarus is an immigrant, like Brik (who wonders if the Biblical Lazarus, risen from the dead, was also a kind of immigrant); the pogrom Lazarus survived is akin to the ethnic cleansing carried out in Bosnia; and American hysteria about anarchists circa 1908 resembles the fear-mongering perpetrated by, among others, our "idiot president." (As a "reasonably loyal citizen," Brik tries "hard not to wish painful death to" him.)
Well into the book, Brik mentions a fight he had with Mary, his American wife, about the photos from Abu Ghraib. She sees in them "decent American kids acting on a misguided belief they were protecting freedom"; Brik see kids who "loved being alive and righteous by virtue of having good American intentions," and who "liked looking at the pictures of themselves sticking a baton up some Arab ass." During the argument, Brik "flipped and turned crazy," he tells us, shouting about "the land of the fucking free and the home of the asshole brave." Rora, we learn, took pictures of the dead during the war in Bosnia so that Rambo could look at them and enjoy the power of "being alive in the middle of death."
Back on page 52, the eyes of Captain Evans take on a menacing look. Aleksandar Hemon takes no joy in the death around him, attempting instead a kind of resurrection. It's an impossible task—but Hemon works miracles.