Aleksandar Hemon

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"The Lazarus Project"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAY 24, 2008)

"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."

Aleksandar Hemon wastes no time in getting to the heart of the story in his latest book, The Lazarus Project. In March 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant to Chicago, visits the home of George Shippy, Chicago's chief of police. The reasons for the visit remain unclear because in a few minutes, Lazarus was shot to death. Anarchism it seems was raging wild at the time and Chief Shippy, upon seeing a suspicious-looking character on his doorstep, was not one to take chances.

A hundred years later, Brik, a young Chicago-based writer of Eastern European descent, chances upon the story and the slice of history fascinates him. With the aid of a grant, he embarks on the Lazarus Project, trying to reverse Lazarus's steps and find out more about the immigrant's past.

The book includes chapters that detail the Chicago of 1908 and Hemon brings to life the murder of Lazarus and the devastation it wreaks on his sister Olga. Hemon also shows how terrified the country was, of anyone who didn't look or talk like the rest. These chapters alternate with Brik's travels through Eastern Europe until at the very end, in an ingenious style, Brik starts showing up in Lazarus's stories. Brik travels with a photographer called Rora who spins wonderfully crafted tales while they travel. In real life, The Lazarus Project is supplemented with real life pictures by Hemon's photographer friend, Velibor Bozovic. There are also some pictures from 1908 in the novel and they complement the story beautifully, bringing it to life. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are gems of extremely short stories narrated by Rora and Hemon strengths really shine through here.

His descriptions of the Eastern European countryside and the locations Brik visits are beautifully detailed and at many times, funny. Hemon writes of a fifth floor room in a hotel called Business Center Bukovina. “The room smelled of my grandfather's death—a malodorous concoction of urine, vermin, and mental decomposition. When I turned on the lights, a host of cockroaches scurried radially from the center of the room, marked by a stain on the carpet. The blankets on the bed were greasy, the sheets blemished and wrinkled. There was a small TV in the upper-left corner; the walls were much too white, as though blood spatter had been whitewashed with quicklime.”

Hemon who is himself a Bosnian immigrant to the United States, is no stranger to the immigrant experience. Josef Pronek, the protagonist of his previous novel, Nowhere Man, simply describes himself as “complicated.” Here too, Hemon weaves in the immigrant experience and his take is not without cynicism. Once a year when Brik takes part in a gathering of fellow Bosnians in Chicago, he knows it is mostly an act for the benefit of both the new immigrants and the Americans who visit. “Just like everybody else, I enjoy the unearned nobility of belonging to one nation and not another; I like deciding who can join us, who is in, who is out, and who is to be welcome when visiting. The dance performance is also supposed to impress potential American benefactors, who are far more likely to fork out their charitable money in support of the Association of Bosnian-Americans if convinced that our culture is nothing like theirs so that they can exhibit their tolerance and help our unintelligible customs (now that we have reached these shores and are never going back), to be preserved forever, like a fly in resin.” 

Hemon also passes a sharp indictment against American naiveté Brik makes fun of his father-in-law and hates “his insistence on my gratefulness to American greatness, and his constant, stupid questions about my country, questions like: “Do they have opera in your country?” or “Your country is west of what?” My country was this remote, mythical place for him, a remnant of the world from before America, a land of obsolescence, whose people could arrive at humanity only in the United States, and belatedly.”

In a recent interview, Hemon recalls an editorial cartoon published in the United States in 1908. It shows an enraged Statue of Liberty kicking a cage full of foreigners, they are dark-faced, curly-haired, hook-nosed and are clutching bombs and knives. The caption says “Enough.”

“The notion of immigrants as foreign bodies contaminating America is as old as it is persistent, and it is closely related to the fantasy of American innocence and inherent goodness,” Hemon has said. The Lazarus Project's most important achievement is to draw some chilling parallels between today's war on terror and the xenophobia that ran through the country many years ago. What's worse, the naiveté Hemon talks about, might actually be fueling the fire. As Hemon says in his thought-provoking new novel, “Belief and delusion are incestuous siblings.”

  • Amazon readers rating: from 53 reviews


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About the Author:

Aleksandar HemonAleksandar Hemon (HAY-mun) was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1964. He began writing as a teenager, was a published writer by the time he graduated from Sarajevo University in 1990, and later became cultural editor of Dani, the independent Sarajevo weekly. In 1992, he went to Chicago on what was planned as a short visit, but he was soon stranded in the U.S. as Sarajevo fell under siege. Hemon found himself unable to write in his native Serbo-Croatian. When it became clear that he would be in the U.S. more or less permanently, he gave himself five years to master enough English to write fiction. Hemon laboriously expanded his knowledge of English, using Nabokov's Lolita as his key to unlocking the language. His metamorphosis from Bosnian refugee with basic English to an author writing in English making the most acclaimed literary debut in decades was astonishing. One of his first stories, "Islands," was published in Ploughshares and then reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 1999.

His short story collection The Question of Bruno, which appeared on Best Books of 2000 lists nationwide, won several literary awards, and was published in eighteen countries. His novel Nowhere Man has been selected as a 2002 National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) finaliist.Hemon's work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Esquire, Granta, Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories.

He is a recipient of the 2004 MacArthur Prize.

Aleksandar Hemon lives in Chicago, Illinois and teaches at the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies.

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