The Lazarus Project
by Aleksandar Hemon
The morning sun was coddling the window, the mists were crawling up the slopes of Trebevic. I could see Marin-dvor spreading toward the invisible river, and in an absurd flash I fully perceived it as the neighborhood I had been born and had grown up in." (p 280)
The Lazarus Project is the second book by Aleksandar Hemon that I have read. The previous one, his first novel Nowhere Man, I considered a flawed attempt at novel-writing. This was due both to Hemon's inexperience and his attempt to relate an immigrant's experience in a postmodern way that did not appeal to me; neither his characterizations nor his style helped.
The Lazarus Project is narrated by a young Chicagoan named Vladimir Brik. Like Hemon himself, he grew up in Sarajevo, came to Chicago on a visit and was forced to stay in the United States when war broke out in what was then Yugoslavia. While the new novel is in some ways a continuation of Hemon’s vision of an immigrant’s slanted, postmodern world, its narrator, Vladimir Brik, is also a departure from the ironic yet naïve young man of his earlier book. This is a mature novel about a grown man who is animated by and indeed savors the nuances of disappointment. In one scene, Brik tiptoes into his Chicago kitchen to make coffee before his wife wakes up. “I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES.”(p 73)
Brik is married to a successful American neurosurgeon who saves lives from “her high position of surgically American decency.” He, on the other hand, struggles “through permanent confusion.” Living with an acute sense of the loss of his homeland and, so, the loss of his identity, Brik has become intrigued with another immigrant: Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jew who escaped the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in what is now Moldova and came to Chicago. This Averbuch is a historical figure whose story is still something of a mystery; but it is known that he arrived at the house of the Chicago chief of police on March 2, 1908; there was some kind of scuffle, and the young man was shot and killed. Still haunted by the anarchist Haymarket riots, in which seven police officers died, and fearing a violent reaction to the mayor’s cancellation of a speech by Emma Goldman, Chicago moved into a state of turmoil.
When Brik gets a research grant and takes off for Eastern Europe, following in Lazarus’s footsteps, he brings an old friend along, a photographer and fellow Sarajevan named Rora. Rora and Brik’s road trip is an Eastern European nightmare. They are driven to Bucharest by a somnolent pimp with a terrified young girl held captive in the back seat. In one chapter, set at a bordello hotel called Business Center Bukovina, Hemon constructs a delicate, beautifully rendered fable of ugliness, desolation and heartlessness. They pass a mangy dog as they enter. The window looks out on a huge garbage bin “brimming with glass bottles,” their sparkle providing a brief moment of pleasure: “I always like to see a full garbage container, because I relish the thought of emptying it, the complete unburdening implicit in it.” At the end of the chapter, Brik hears a drunken couple shouting, then laughter, a dog howling and the shattering of glass. “The man and woman had thrown the dog in the garbage container full of bottles and then must have watched it writhing, shredding and slicing itself, trying to escape.”
There is to be no escape, no “complete unburdening” for Brik, no emptying of the life he has known and tried both to remember and forget. “Your nightmares follow you like a shadow, forever,” he notes. He also made this remark:
"There are moments in life when it is all turned inside out--what is real becomes unreal, what is unreal becomes tangible; and all your level-headed efforts to keep a tight ontological control are rendered silly and indulgent."(pp 47-8) These sound like a Kafkaesque sort of life as does much of the novel.
I note that this is yet another novel that attempts two different stories, connected at several different levels, but not always successfully. I am reminded of Louis de Berniere's Birds Without Wings which was a similar attempt to interlink two related stories, also unsuccessfully in my estimation. Hemon's attempt is more concise and retains its ability to capture the reader's attention with mystery and intrigue, along with some humor, that propel both stories. The novel's short chapters interspersed with introductory historical photographs (does he think that the readers' imaginations need help?) also keep the narrative from flagging. The result is a satisfying read but one that for me was not quite as "stunning" as opined by some critics.
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