Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Book review: The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

The Lazarus Project is the beautifully written story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant shot to death in 1908 by Chicago’s chief of police, and of Vladimir Brik, the modern day Bosnian immigrant who is compelled to explore Averbuch’s tale in order to come to grips with his own existence.

The narrator Brik (standing in for author Aleksandar Hemon himself, I believe)came to the United States in the spring of 1992, before Sarajevo came under siege. Married to an Irish-American woman, a neurosurgeon, he himself is vaguely employed as a writer of columns about the immigrant experience. He finds himself a little lost and fastens his attention upon the Averbuch case, receiving a grant to write a book about it. Grant money in hand, Brik and his friend Rora, another recent Bosnian immigrant and Sarajevo war photographer, head to eastern Europe to retrace Averbuch’s steps through war, pogroms, poverty and finally, his death in Chicago.

That Lazarus Averbuch was killed on March 2, 1908, is undeniable fact. The young man had arrived at Chief George Shippy’s home, saying he had a letter for the policeman. The Chief claimed that Averbuch was acting hostile and had a knife, with which he stabbed the chief, and a gun, with which he shot the chief’s son as well as the chief’s bodyguard. Afraid for their lives, Shippy and the bodyguard shot Averbuch seven times, killing him. The press immediately reported that Averbuch was an anarchist and a radical, feeding the current anti-anarchist frenzy already abounding in Chicago.

Averbuch’s sister Olga, herself intimidated and threatened by the authorities, denied any radical leanings by her brother, claiming that he did not own a gun or know how to shoot one. Chicago’s Jewish newspaper speculated that Shippy overreacted at Averbuch’s presence and shot at him wildly, wounding his own son and bodyguard, and subsequently blaming it on the dead youth.

This novel is written in two narratives: one in first person, as Brik travels with Rora through eastern Europe; and one in third person, as Brik imagines Lazarus and Olga Averbuch’s lives. Hemon connects the two narratives in many ways – location and history, character’s names, modern action reflecting not-so ancient history. Whether this is meant to be taken as Brik’s unconscious personalization of Lazarus’s story or as coincidence is unimportant: Hemon knows that we are irrevocably connected to our history.

Hemon has a fantastic way with the English language (which is not his native tongue), creating vivid and astute imagery, some funny: Brik and Rora have coffee at a new Starbucks “that smelled of fresh toxic paint and some extraordinary shittychino”; and some heartbreaking: after a fight with his very American wife, Brik realizes that “[t]he baggage I dragged around the eastern lands contained the tortured corpses of our good intentions.” The text of the novel is also interspersed with and supported by haunting black and white photographs, some provided by the Chicago Historical Society and some taken by the author’s colleague, photographer Velibor Bozovic.

Deftly comparing the anti-radical panic of early 20th century America with post-9/11 concerns, and imbuing the nameless faces of the displaced immigrant masses with humanity, The Lazarus Project is a thoughtful, provocative and vibrant novel by an author whose voice should be heard.

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