THE LAZARUS PROJECT
By Aleksandar Hemon
Riverhead. 294 pp. $24.95
The Lazarus Project, the masterful new novel from the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon, opens with a passage that recalls the invocations of epic poetry: "The time and place," Hemon tells us, "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." Which muses Hemon invoked in writing this troubling, funny and redemptive novel are not named, though one supposes that Clio, the muse of history, must have had some involvement, as well as Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. If there were muses of "stolen cars and sadness" -- his country's "main exports," according to Hemon -- they would no doubt have played a role as well.
At the heart of The Lazarus Project is a true story: On March 2, 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Eastern European Jewish immigrant and the survivor of an Easter 1903 pogrom in the village of Kishinev, knocked on the door of George Shippy, the Chicago chief of police. Their encounter culminated with Shippy shooting and killing Lazarus, whom he claimed was an anarchist.
Hemon imagines that a hundred years later, a non-Jewish Bosnian immigrant named Brik, who works in Chicago as a teacher and journalist, wins a grant to do research for a book on Lazarus. His plan, he says, is to "follow Lazarus all the way back to the pogrom in Kishinev, to the time before America. I needed to reimagine what I could not retrieve; I needed to see what I could not imagine."
To aid him in the "seeing," he enlists Rora, a photographer he knew in high school in Sarajevo who has also ended up in Chicago. Together, they set off on a surreal journey to Eastern Europe, a landscape of shifting frontiers in which criminal wealth feeds off poverty and 24-hour supermarkets crop up alongside outdoor markets. "Men loitered at the street corners," Brik says, "offering sotto voce to sell me something very cheaply, which I refused even though I had no idea what it was."
The structure of The Lazarus Project is ingenious. Alternating chapters give us the story of Lazarus's killing (the story Brik is writing) and the story of Brik's own journey in search of Lazarus. Then, as the novel progresses, these narratives begin, eerily, to merge. Characters from Brik's life -- or versions of them -- show up in Lazarus's story. Even Brik himself makes a brief appearance. It's a conceit that Hemon justifies through a series of meditations on the idea of resurrection that Lazarus, by his very name, evokes. Art is resurrection, but so is history, a point that Hemon drives home when he notes (ruefully) the 1908 newspaper editorials bemoaning "the weak laws that allowed the foreign anarchist pestilence to breed parasitically on the American body politic. The war against anarchism was much like the current war on terror -- funny how old habits never die."
Brik's own war is with America itself. For him, America is a country in which "belief and delusion are incestuous siblings," in which "the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth -- reality is the fastest [growing] American commodity." In a key moment, he recalls arguing with his wife, a surgeon, about the photos from Abu Ghraib. She sees in the photographs "essentially decent American kids acting upon a misguided belief they were protecting freedom." Brik sees "young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else's life and death." Eventually, Brik will find himself succumbing to that same heady cocktail, "the lethal combination of wrath and good intentions" that leads to pleasure in brutality. Alas, by this point there is every suggestion that his marriage may be just one of the casualties.
Whether describing turn-of-the-century Chicago, with its mean tenements and decrepit outhouses, or the "onionesque armpits" of a Moldovan pimp or an "unreal McDonald's" in Moldova, "shiny and sovereign and structurally optimistic," Hemon is as much a writer of the senses as of the intellect. He can be very funny: The novel is full of jokes and linguistic riffs that justify comparisons to Nabokov. And though the prose occasionally lapses into turgidity ("Olga's stomach is churning and she would vomit if there were anything in it to disgorge"), these overwrought moments are more than made up for by the many gorgeous ones. (In the aftermath of the pogrom: "The down from torn pillows floating, like souls, through the fog of what had just happened.") For beauty and violence, in Hemon's universe, are far from mutually exclusive. Indeed, he seems determined not to let his readers (particularly his American readers) escape the experience of war as a personal affront and a personal transformation.
As Brik observes of the Moldovan woman who serves, in the novel, as a sort of gatekeeper of Jewish history, "She would one day die, and so would Rora, and so would I. They were me. We lived the same life: we would vanish into the same death. We were like everybody else, because there was nobody like us." ·
David Leavitt's most recent novel, "The Indian Clerk," is a finalist for this year's PEN/Faulkner Prize.