In 1992 Aleksander Hemon was 28 years old and on holiday in America when Sarajevo (his home city) was caught up and in the Balkan civil war. Stranded in a foreign country, he began to build a new life for himself in Chicago. It took him only 3 years to publish his first story in English, 8 to write his first book, and within 12 years his first novel, Nowhere Man, was published to great acclaim. The MacArthur Foundation even awarded him its Genius Grant. And you can see why. For someone who adopted English at a relatively late age – scrap that, for anyone who has ever picked up a pen – his command of English is phenomenal. He is a fabulous writer, unsullied by the sort of repeated cultural errors and obvious clichés which can beset a native author. Like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov before him, Hemon’s prose has that fresh exactitude, that startlingly exquisite touch which brings his books superbly to life.
Aleksander Hemon knows what it is like to be an immigrant in America and he writes about what he knows. Just as the central character in Nowhere Man, Jozef Pronek, seemed to borrow much from his authors plight, so too does the protagonist in The Lazarus Project. Vladimir Brik is an emotionally insecure Bosnian immigrant gloriously and successfully posing as a well integrated American. He is happily married to a brain surgeon named Mary, is financially comfortable, and writes a column on immigration for a newspaper. As he proclaims early on:
“Just like everybody else, I enjoy the unearned nobility of belonging to one nation and not the other; I like deciding who can join us, who is out, and who is to be welcome when visiting."
A Westerner indeed! So well has Brik convinced himself of his Americanisation, that any animosity he harbours is directed at what he feels is his distant and backward homeland, rather than his adopted life. But perhaps everything is not as he believes.
When he stumbles across the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Ukrainian immigrant who fled the 1903 Kishinev pogrom only to end up being shot by the Chicago Chief of Police in 1908, he feels the urge to write about it. Was Lazarus part a vast and dangerous anarchist network populated by immigrants seeking to overthrow the American order? Or was his tragedy an example of the xenophobic and bitter struggle taking place following the Haymarket riots? Nothing is certain; the truth almost one hundred years old. If it ever existed. But it is this uncertainty that draws Brik to the story; he feels a sense of immigrant camaraderie for this forgotten man.
“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”.
So with these first lines Brik jumps headfirst into the story of Lazarus. Soon he and Rora – a compulsive photographer and fellow refugee – set off on a trip to visit the land of Averbuch’s birth and their own shady heritage. With its two interwoven narratives, Brik’s physical and emotional journey finds mirrors in his imaginings of the aftermath of Averbuch’s death. Getting inside the head of Averbuch’s sister, Olga - bereft and alone in a strange and hostile community, struggling to come to terms with her brothers’ death – Brik soon finds his own present mired in as much uncertainty as the past he is researching. And his patchwork identity begins to unravel.
The Lazarus Project is the story of Brik’s inability to make sense of his conflicting identities. American, Bosnian, modern man, house husband, immigrant, atheist. This list goes on.
“No, I am not Jewish. Neither is Mary
Nor am I Muslim, Serb, or Croat.
I am complicated…”
And it is this complication which is at the centre of his struggle. The Lazarus Project is not a blithe, simplistic look at the plight of sympathetic immigrants, but a witty and fiercely immediate book written by a man who pours all his life experiences, thoughts and conflicting emotions into his prose.
The culture clash is very real, with Bosnian jokes and storytelling bravado proliferating amidst Brik’s musings on contemporary American society. Parallels are drawn between the current War on Terror and the early Twentieth century War on Anarchy but these are not overdrawn or belaboured. Hemon presents his characters and their society in stunning 3D, complete with a whole spectrum of thoughts, emotions, desires and undercurrents. And as the plot develops it is the idea of ‘home’ that comes sharply to the fore.
As Brik travels further away from Chicago today, holes start to appear in his marriage. He is emasculated by his financial dependency on Mary, doesn’t want to have children because he is worried they will be too American for him, drinks too much. And yet, although his marriage is not the perfect union he would wish, there is no sense that it is about to collapse, there is none of that most American of issues: angst. Instead there is an emptiness here that spans the distance between their homelands, and Brik cannot stop his insecurities poking through. He loves Mary, that is for sure: at one point he lists all her little quirks and one gets a real sense of affinity, a really romantic attraction to this couple and the man who wants to close the gap but cannot bring himself to talk to Mary, to explain his uncertainty. Mary is the absent presence throughout, always on Brik’s mind: his conscience and his guilt. She is the strongest character in the book; Hemon brilliantly keeps her balanced on a fine line between caricature of Brik’s perspective and independent woman in her own right. They are two people who fell in love but whose love is being quietly eroded by there own insecurities. As he travels further and further from his present, the repeated motif of “home is where somebody notices your absence” takes on a life all of its own.
The Lazarus Projects is a fantastic book. Regular motifs decorate the narratives like a grand symmetrical mosaic, at one moment something seems irrelevant, only to emerge a few pages later as a central theme. From the plethora of Bosnian jokes, to Rora’s collection of dramatic war stories, and Olga’s aborted attempts to write a letter home explaining Lazarus’s death to their mother. Layer on layer on layer, Hemon builds a beautiful, intricate and subtly crafted tale of history and immigration.
Reviews are often blighted by their need to liken their subject to something else, to give solidity to their empty words. The word ‘reminiscent’ is a reviewers crutch; his drug of choice, if you will. And as such, more often than not these comparisons fail to satisfy the perfection they promise. But despite these pitfalls, it is impossible not to mention here the similarities between The Lazarus Project and one of the most widely celebrated novels of the past decade: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Not only is the plot familiar – an American searching for his family identity in the history rich lands of Eastern Europe– but the multimedia use of pictures to assist the narrative, the merging of storylines, the weight of history on the present; all recall the adventures of Jonathan Safran Foer. And both are simply superb works of literature. In its central themes of identity and belonging, The Lazarus Project is virtually unrivalled.
Imagining the fate of Lazarus Averbuch and his sister Olga is a feet of imagination; Hemon puts the words in their mouths, and flesh on their bones. It is an uncomfortable, grimy life that they lead, but one with odd sparks of hope and joy as well. This is a fantastic novel: witty, intricate and delightfully realised, it is a study of displacement and solitude, of our yearning for and ambivalence towards that most tricky of notions: that of home.
8 out of 10