California Literary Review

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

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February 11th, 2009 at 11:25 am

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The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
The Lazarus Project
by Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead, 304 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

A Book of Shifting Borders

On the morning of March 2, 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant who had fled the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, knocked on the door of Chicago Police Chief George Shippy. Noting Averbuch’s foreign features and working man’s dress, the officer assumed he was an anarchist and gunned him down. The Chicago press, still haunted by the Haymarket Massacre, framed the unarmed Averbuch as an assassin and unleashed a fiercely xenophobic panic, targeting both real and perceived anarchists.

Aleksander Hemon’s dazzling novel, The Lazarus Project, pivots around this little-known historical event: a century after Averbuch’s murder, a Bosnian-American writer named Vladimir Brik retraces the young immigrant’s flight from Kishinev to Chicago. Brik shares much of Hemon’s background: born in Sarajevo, he visited the U.S. as a tourist in 1992 and had to stay as a refugee when Serb forces seized his hometown. After winning a grant to write a book on Averbuch, Brik sets off with photographer-friend Rora Halilbasic on an otherworldly journey through Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Hemon made the same trip with his friend Velibor Bosovic, who took some of the photographs that appear between the chapters of the novel.) Brik’s account of his pilgrimage with Rora reads like a postmodern Canterbury Tales with travelers trading stories on the way to a martyr’s shrine—Kishinev, where they find little more than empty graves.

As readers may know from his prior books, The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man, Hemon is a master innovator, spinning seamless realistic fictions only to rip the floor out from under our feet. The Lazarus Project alternates between two stories: Brik’s present-day narration of his trip with Rora and the fictionalized account of Averbuch’s murder, which Brik presumably writes. A black page with a grainy, old-fashioned photograph marks the end of each chapter. These dark photos demarcate the alternating narratives and make it seem as if the book is cycling through day and night, dreams and waking, life and death. As the novel advances, the two stories seep into each other: names, images, and even passages of text from Averbuch’s story reappear in Brik’s and vice versa. Underworld journeys and empty tombs abound. In both stories, fugitives cross borders by hiding inside coffins under human remains and being “resurrected” on the other side.

The experience of reading these braided, interpenetrating stories can resemble Brik’s nightly ritual of remembering conversations, colors, smells, and other bits of waking life as he falls asleep.

It often got out of hand: possible stories sprouted from the recalled instants … [and] turned unnoticeably into a dream, whereby the narrative went completely haywire and I became but a confused character within it, unable to escape the plot. I could only snap out of it, and if I did, I instantly lost the dream, its reality vanishing the moment I woke up. Occasionally, a violently involuntary memory of a dream emerged in my mind, like a corpse released from the bottom of a lake.

Likewise in the novel, a dreamlike story lures the reader in, vanishes in a different story, then jarringly resurges—not as the resurrection that the title promises, but as the eruption of a traumatic memory—a corpse floating to the surface. The novel’s main characters are refugees from historic traumas—Brik and Rora from the Sarajevo siege, Averbuch and his sister Olga from the Kishinev pogrom. As Brik and Rora travel through a surreal underworld of Eastern European crime gangs, brothels, and 24-hour supermarkets, Rora, who lived in Sarajevo during the siege, tells horror stories about his dubious dealings with a gangster named Rambo and his passages in and out of Sarajevo through the famed tunnel, filled with “clayish, sepulchral murk.” Triggered by survivor guilt, Brik gets so caught up in Rora’s stories and Averbuch’s that he can’t keep them separate. Yet, the stories are inextricably linked. “The war against anarchism,” Brik tells us, “was much like the current war on terror—funny how old habits never die.” Rora’s stories about the siege echo the Kishinev pogrom, the early 20th-century anti-anarchist hysteria, and post-9/11 anti-Muslim frenzy in the U.S.

Brik’s disjointed stories contrast sharply with the myth of immigrant success that his American-born wife believes in. Early in the novel, Brik mentions how his wife and other Americans “were given to gushing over the neatness of my immigrant story; many would recall an ancestor who came to America and followed the same narrative trajectory: displacement, travails, redemption, success.” According to this idealized narrative, immigration would be a death, followed by resurrection after a harrowing journey through a hell of hard labor. But the notion that immigrants who work hard will make a new life for themselves presupposes a belief in self-determination that Brik (and Hemon) don’t share. Averbuch, “a Lazarus who struggled to resurrect in America,” was by all accounts hardworking.

Hemon’s characters don’t determine their own lives. Brik says his “success stage seemed to have been suspended,” and the word Project in the title suggests the promise of a book, rather than its completion. Brik is kept by his wife, a successful brain-surgeon, who looks down on his underemployment and “moral waddling” from “her high position of surgically American decency.” Preferring not to hear about genocide and mass graves, she can’t grasp that Sarajevo’s ruin has so shattered Brik that he has a hard time knowing what he wants and acting upon his desires. Hence he can’t tell (or live) a conventional linear story about a hero who overcomes all obstacles to achieve his desire. Brik’s narratives are necessarily fractured, and he views the consummately American belief in freedom and individual sovereignty as a delusion of those who have power over others. He smashes the family china when his wife looks at the Abu Ghraib pictures and sees decent but misguided American kids who thought they were defending freedom. Brik sees “young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else’s life and death.”

Like someone under siege, Brik sees freedom as the right to cross borders. As Moldovan border guards warily inspect his U.S. passport, Brik watches in envy and awe as a suspicious-looking man strolls over to the entrance to Moldova, chats up the guard, then ducks under the ramp when the officer isn’t looking.

I couldn’t even begin to contemplate such an operation, because I had places to go and get back to. There was a home and an away-from-home in my life, and the space between the two was rife with borders. And if I violated the laws governing home/away-from-home transitions, they would keep me away from home. It was that simple.

Brik sardonically dubs his passport “my soul.” In many traditions, a soul is a border-crosser, surviving death and passing into an afterlife. The metaphor becomes even droller as Brik forks the supposed core of his being over to border-patrol guards and a crazed taxi driver.

The Lazarus Project is book of shifting borders—between Brik’s story and Averbuch’s, past and present, author and narrator, fiction and fact, and between the countries of Eastern Europe. Brik’s (and Hemon’s) native Yugoslavia has splintered, and international frontiers have changed multiple times since 1989. Since Averbuch’s death, Kishinev, then in the Russian Empire, has become Chisinau, Moldova; Czernowetz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine. Hemon embeds stories within stories—creating containments that backfire, as the stories bleed into each other.

Finally transgressing its own borders, The Lazarus Project refuses to end. On the last page, Rora’s sister Azra, a doctor, treats Brik’s broken hand and says, “You will need it for writing.” This final sentence circles back to the novel’s opening lines, in which an unnamed narrator introduces the story of Averbuch’s murder: “The time and place are the only things I am certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago. Beyond that is the haze of history and pain, and now I plunge.” Perhaps Brik has his hand fixed at the novel’s end then dives into writing Averbuch’s story at the beginning. But the narrator who pens the novel’s first lines is never identified. Hemon denies us the satisfaction of knowing for certain that Brik is narrating both stories.

Perhaps the narrator of Averbuch’s story remains anonymous because Brik falls apart—dying in a figurative sense—toward the end of his journey. When Brik and Rora reach Averbuch’s hometown, Kishinev, they search for records and living relatives, but find nothing but empty graves that the Soviets had dug up. (In the other storyline, Averbuch’s grave in Chicago lies empty. Some claim he rose like the biblical Lazarus; in fact, some crafty medical students stole his corpse to dissect.) For Brik, the empty grave is not a sign of resurrection, but of irretrievable loss. Brik loses himself in the cemetery. He can no longer remember his wife’s face, their house, or their life together: “Some part of my life ended there, among those empty graves.” Yet, this death allows Brik to invent Averbuch and the other characters as versions of himself. When he finds Rora and the cemetery guide again, he looks at each of them and thinks, “That’s me. … The only one who was not me was myself.” Because Brik is not himself, he can be everyone in his story. In other words, he can create fiction.

This is perhaps what resurrection ultimately means in The Lazarus Project: Hemon resurrects Averbuch as a fiction imposed on “the haze of history and pain.” In this stunningly written book, the past returns with a difference, but without true resurrection or restitution. Hemon tells Averbuch’s story—a fictionalized account of his forgotten and unjust murder—but the wrong is not redressed, since the young man’s death cannot be undone. Brik’s marriage languishes, and he remains in Sarajevo: “Everything was as I remembered it, yet entirely different; I felt like a ghost.”

  • David Goldstein

    The Lazarus Project is about the precariousness of the human condition, where selfishness, maliciousness, capriciousness, randomness and other -ess’s can and often do have devastating life-changing effects. Brik, the main character, attempts to counterbalance the effect of things beyond one’s control with belief, faith, and soul. But he can’t internalize the hype. His wife represents the stolidness of the American Dream realized (sic) something to which he cannot reconcile himself, even resisting the good fortune that comes his way. Rora is his doppelganger, unconcerned with why bad things happen to good people, and determined to stay in the moment. His photographs, which evoke deep emotions in Brik, mean nothing more to Rora than that it was the right picture to take. He tells horrific stories that illustrate the world’s injustices, but is nonchalant upon returning to Sarajevo, where a sociopathic criminal turned politician that he has offended is living. I’m insignificant, he says brushing off the danger, and the guy is secure and it was a long time ago. The docent at the cemetary revives Brik with a hope of shared feelings (vs. the stoic Rora) but we are not given the Gone With The Wind happy ending. There’s a hazy something that Brik ends up chasing; he cannot go back to his wife but indifference, apathy, and helplessness are largely what Brik has found.

    The secondary story about Averbuch echoes the Sturm and Drang that is Brik’s. Researching it provides a vehicle to transport Brik to revisit his past, and as a story-within-a-story serves to illustrate Brik’s mental anguish (I got the sense that the author was concerned that if he wrote something too Kafkaesque he would lose too many potential readers). But it was just a story with an ending whereas Brik’s life story might only conclude with hopelessness and death.

    The writing is compelling, vivid and sometimes graphic. He takes us from philosophical musings to action stories to tragic depictions and back again. The emotional ride is exhilirating; hopefully you’ll appreciate where he lets you off.

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