Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Lazarus Project

In 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, is shot dead by the Chicago Chief of Police. Almost a century later, fictional Vladimir Brik, an immigrant from Bosnia, decides to write a book about Lazarus. Aleksandar Hemon’s latest novel, The Lazarus Project, imagines Averbuch's life and Brik's research.

Armed with a grant and a fellow-Bosnian photographer, Brik returns to Eastern Europe to learn more Lazarus’s life there. They travel through Ukraine, Moldova, and Bulgaria before finally returning to Sarajevo. The chapters alternate between Brik and Averbuch, and each is accompanied with a black-and-white photograph.

Lazarus’s murder is shocking. In essence, the novel suggests he is killed because the chief recognizes him not only as an immigrant but a Jew whom he suspects of anarchy. These actions appear outrageous to the contemporary reader. Yet, how different is early twentieth-century Chicago from early twenty-first century America? Don’t many Americans still fear immigrants? Don’t many Americans still fear anarchists—though we now call them terrorists? The reality of this comparison is disturbing.

The novel also raises the interesting question of what makes an American an American. While traveling in Eastern Europe, Brik often refers to himself as American rather than Bosnian. At some point does he truly morph from one nationality—one culture—to another? Does an immigrant ever truly feel American?

Lazarus invites contemplation and introspection. At times, though, I was distracted from the novel by Hemon himself. What little I know about the author’s biography is surprisingly similar to his character.

Hemon, like Brik, was visiting the U.S. when the conflict in Bosnia broke out. Hemon, like Brik, is married to an American. Hemon, like Brik, received a grant to write his book. Hemon and photographer Velibor Bozovic traveled through Eastern Europe researching Averbuch’s story.

Brik does not always have the most flattering view of his wife, his in-laws, marriage, and fatherhood. I continually imagined how Hemon’s wife felt reading these passages.

Like Anya Ulinich, about whom I wrote a few weeks ago, Hemon is not a native English speaker. He makes some interesting vocabulary choices and seems overly-obsessed with Madonna, but Lazarus is beautifully written. I will definitely be reading more Hemon.

1 comment:

notaconnoisseur said...

I was born and raised in Canada and became a naturalized US citizen when I was 22 years old. Because I grew up in Canada which is not an extremely different culture from the United States, I am not sure whether I am quite qualified to comment on whether or not an immigrant ever feels as if she is an American. All I can say is that I very definitely feel as if I am an American now and not a Canadian. When I visit Canada now I feel very distant from the political and social views of Canadians. I feel as if I am visiting a foreign country. However, I am aware that I feel protective of my birth nation in the same way that I feel defensive when someone criticizes the US. I love both nations.