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The Lazarus project
2008
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New York Times Review
This novels hero is obsessed with an immigrant who died in 1908. SOME writers turn despair into humor as a way of making the world bearable, of discovering some glimmer of beauty or pleasure or, most important, humanity. In contrast, the gifted Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon has taken the formal structure of humor, the grammar of comedy, the rhythms and beats of a joke, and used them to reveal despair. His new novel, "The Lazarus Project," is a remarkable, and remarkably entertaining, chronicle of loss and hopelessness and cruelty propelled by an eloquent, irritable existential unease. It is, against all odds, full of humor and full of jokes. It is, at the same time, inexpressibly sad. Hemon, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant," has written two previous books in English, his second language: a collection of surprising, giddy stories, "The Question of Bruno," and an irresistible, darkly charming novel, "Nowhere Man." Like many of the characters in these works, and like Hemon himself, the hero of "The Lazarus Project" 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 And yet, 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 men of his earlier books. 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." 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. 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 xenophobic hysteria. The parallels between this period and the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, are clear as Hemon moves back and forth between Lazarus's story and Brik's attempt to tell it. Hemon's painful, tender portrayal of Lazarus's sister is heightened almost unbearably by archival photographs of his skinny, gentlelooking corpse. Seeking a grant to write a book about Lazarus, Brik clearly identifies not only with the dead man but with the biblical Lazarus. For Hemon, that biblical figure is just another immigrant an exile from death rather than Yugoslavia. Using dear, distinct, almost journalistic prose, Hemon describes his narrator's hazy, trancelike state of being, in which dreams, memories, death and a lifeafterdeath intermingle. Trying to remember the events of the day before falling asleep, Brik engages in a ritual he calls his "nightly prayer, a contemplation of my presence in the world." But sometimes, he confesses, "a violently involuntary memory of a dream emerged in my mind, like a corpse released from the bottom of the lake." In this one eerie, watery image, Hemon suggests the many ephemeral layers of disassociation from reality the morass of memory, lost memory, dreams and the death of dreams in which Brik exists. This constant sense of a living, permeated loss is partly what impels him to try to uncover the story of Lazarus Averbuch. Writing the book, he thinks, would be a way to define his increasingly drifting life. He isn't earning any money. He isn't committed to his marriage in the clean, hopefilled way his American wife is. He isn't, in fact, committed to anything. In one of the novel's many wonderfully unexpected phrases, he sees his situation as "moral waddling." "The Lazarus Project" is Brik's search for his moral stride. And that search is inextricably bound up in the how and why of storytelling. In Sarajevo before the war, Brik tells us, "everyone could be whatever they claimed they were each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside. ... You could choose to trust his stories because they were good." For Brik the truth has little to do with the hopeful pursuit of facts he finds in his adopted country. Rather, it's suspended somewhere in the illogical logic of the comic mistake (the can of SADNESS), in the joke, in the absurd. The corpse of Lazarus Averbuch, in a 1908 photograph from The Chicago Daily News. When Brik finally gets his 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. A consummate storyteller, Rora provides the jokes and anecdotes that run through the novel like melodic riffs of carefree disembodiment, of otherness, of bemused futility and unattainable truth. In one of them, Suljo comes to visit Mujo in America. Mujo picks him up at the airport in his big car and drives him to a big house. "See that house?" he says. "That's my house." He points to a swimming pool and a sexy woman sunbathing beside it. "That's my wife." "Very nice," Suljo replies. "But who is that brawny, suntanned young man massaging your wife?" "Well," comes the reply, "that's me." 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: "The room smelled of my grandfather's death a malodorous concoction of urine, vermin and mental decomposition." 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. When Brik and Rora finally reach Sarajevo, Brik discovers that Rora's stories are Sarajevo stories after all. And what of his own story? At the close of this richly stark and disturbing novel, Brik realizes that, a selfcreated Lazarus, he must begin to write it himself. Hemon's narrator is a man who is animated by and indeed savors the nuances of disapppointment. Cathleen Schine's most recent novel, "The New Yorkers," has just been released in paperback.
Publishers Weekly Review
MacArthur genius Hemon in his third book (after Nowhere Man) intelligently unpacks 100 years' worth of immigrant disillusion, displacement and desperation. As fears of the anarchist movement roil 1908 Chicago, the chief of police guns down Lazarus Averbuch, an eastern European immigrant Jew who showed up at the chief's doorstep to deliver a note. Almost a century later, Bosnian-American writer Vladimir Brik secures a coveted grant and begins working on a book about Lazarus; his research takes him and fellow Bosnian Rora, a fast-talking photographer whose photos appear throughout the novel, on a twisted tour of eastern Europe (there are brothel-hotels, bouts of violence, gallons of coffee and many fabulist stories from Rora) that ends up being more a journey into their own pasts than a fact-finding mission. Sharing equal narrative duty is the story of Olga Averbuch, Lazarus's sister, who, hounded by the police and the press (the Tribune reporter is especially vile), is faced with another shock: the disappearance of her brother's body from his potter's grave. (His name, after all, was Lazarus.) Hemon's workmanlike prose underscores his piercing wit, and between the murders that bookend the novel, there's pathos and outrage enough to chip away at even the hardest of hearts. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Summary
In two collections of stories, The Question of Brunoand the NBCC-finalist Nowhere Man, Aleksandar Hemon has earned unmatched literary acclaim and a reputation as one of the English language’s most original and moving wordsmiths. In The Lazarus Project, Hemon has turned these talents to an embracing novel that intertwines haunting historical atmosphere and detail with sharp and shimmering—sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking—contemporary storytelling. On March 2, 1908, nineteen-year-old Lazarus Averbuch, a recent Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe to Chicago, knocked on the front door of the house of George Shippy, the chief of Chicago police. When Shippy came to the door, Averbuch offered him what he said was an important letter. Instead of taking the letter, Shippy shot Averbuch twice, killing him. When Shippy released a statement casting Averbuch as a would-be anarchist assassin and agent of foreign political operatives, he all but set off a city and a country already simmering with ethnic and political tensions. Now, in the twenty-first century, a young writer in Chicago, Brik, also from Eastern Europe, becomes obsessed with Lazarus’s story—what really happened, and why? In order to understand Averbuch, Brik and his friend Rora—who overflows with stories of his life as a Sarajevo war photographer—retrace Averbuch’s path across Eastern Europe, through a history of pogroms and poverty, and through a present-day landscape of cheap mafiosi and cheaper prostitutes. The stories of Averbuch and Brik become inextricably entwined, augmented by the photographs that Rora takes on their journey, creating a truly original, provocative, and entertaining novel that will confirm Hemon once and for all as one of the most dynamic and essential literary voices of our time.
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