I recently bought Aleksandar Hemon’s latest book, The Lazarus Project, on a whim. Always a sucker for fiction with photographs I had not heard of the book, Hemon’s name a vague item on a mental list of contemporary authors I’ve been told to read. The jacket copy raves about Hemon’s ability to invigorate the English language, his second language, telling the two stories that comprise the novel.
The book’s title makes itself an obvious choice as the two parallel narratives unfold: one shadows Vladimir Brik, an expatriated Bosnian living in Chicago under the pall of the war on terror; the other makes fiction of a historical event, the 1908 killing of Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch by the Chicago chief of police. Both stories concern themselves with returns that unlike the title’s biblical namesake cannot be resurrected.
We meet Brik at a Chicago celebration of Bosnia’s Independence Day where he unexpectedly reunites with his old friend from Sarajevo, Rora, who unlike Brik suffered through the Bosnian War. Married to an American neurosurgeon, writing a newspaper column about expatriate experiences and working on a novel, the American life Brik has built for himself since his 1992 arrival in Chicago is one of a self-inflicted, guilty complacency. Rora, a photographer, shares a worldview more aligned with a resignation to struggle indicative of something that not even America’s abundance can slake: “a poor people’s affliction: the timeless feeling that plenty never means enough.”
Brik receives a grant so he can travel to Eastern Europe to research his novel about Lazarus Averbuch, planning to retrace the immigrant’s path to America, which is signposted by pogroms and refugee camps. Brik decides to bring Rora along, and the journey becomes a homecoming of sorts. What both narratives share in common is the fact that home is not a place one can always return to, or find it easy to create elsewhere.
Using newspaper clippings and imagination, Hemon’s examination of the circumstances resulting in the death of Lazarus focuses on Olga, the only person in Chicago that really knew her brother. Speculation about anarchist leanings and the persistent bigotry that neither Olga nor her brother could escape cloud the actuality of what really happened to Lazarus, the police and the press favoring their assumptions over the facts.
It is here at this intersection of history and imagination where the two stories weave in and out of one another. For Olga, as news of her brother’s slaying evolves into an issue of great civic import, she has no way of knowing what really happened to her brother, and therefore cannot fathom how to break the news to their mother, who is still in Europe. The lack of any objective clarity about Lazarus inspires speculations about the man he had become, the friends he made, the meetings he attended, as contrasted with her memories of their happy pre-pogrom upbringing. On a grander scale, this inability to connect the dots, or even discern them, speaks to the development of the American experiment during the early 20th century, something that was in full swing but nearly impossible to decipher.
For Brik, his imaginative indulgences not only make stark the rift between history and imagination, but also reveal his solipsistic selfishness. The ostensible reason for this trip is to learn about the past, the personal history that delivered Lazarus to his demise. But before Brik and Rora leave, intimations are made that for Brik, it is only about him. Rora’s presence is not so much about companionship but to serve as a foil for Brik to absolve his guilt about not staying in Sarajevo.
Discovering Lazarus Averbuch’s past becomes a secondary activity as Brik and Rora shuttle through the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bosnia. As Rora does little more than drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and snap photographs, Brik is either considering his marriage or needling Rora about the sordid details of wartime life. Both lines of questioning reveal the inadequacies Brik sees in himself, though it doesn’t seem that anyone else sees them in him.
The photographs in the book – a mix of images shot by Velibor Bozovic and culled from the Chicago Historical Society – separate the chapters, which trade back and forth between the two narratives. The photographs do correspond with the two plots, but they also insinuate vagueness. Rora and the photographs he takes serve in the same capacity within the context of the book. Photographs rely on the imagination of the viewer. Whatever photographers see in a scene they shoot, whatever they do or do not capture, they are present at the moment of the photograph, but the viewer is not.
Before Brik and Rora depart, Brik reminisces about his pre-American life: “The one thing I remembered and missed from the before-the-war Sarajevo was a kind of unspoken belief that everyone could be whatever they claimed they were – each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside.”
This internal validation defines Brik and his quixotic quest. His endless string of questions for Rora (which for most of the book Rora deflects with jokes) finally results in Rora calling out his travel companion: “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 more I tell you, you will never know anything.”
After a booze-fueled argument with his wife, Brik is locked out of their home, leaving him to wander. Having nowhere to go gets him thinking about “home.” Without home, everywhere is nowhere. Later, he defines home as a place where people miss you when you are gone. But, where Brik wants to be missed is a place where no one knows him.
In The Lazarus Project, birthmarks rhyme with eye color; sparking bottles overflowing from a dumpster elicit pleasure; twiggy arms emerge from sleeves like tongues; Jesus is either “Mr. Christ” or a “nailed gymnast;” sunflowers are coy, despair “brick-thick.” The lively writing makes for a vivid read that casts a glaring light on the horrors of pogroms and the Bosnian War and what was left in their wakes. Some of the book’s most intriguing ideas are not followed through, however, because of Brik’s single-mindedness, which eclipses the Lazarus Averbuch story, leaving us with a character who cares only about himself.