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In Search of the Outrageous Past

The Lazarus Project

by Aleksandar Hemon, with photographs by Velibor Bozovic and from the Chicago Historical Society
Riverhead, 294 pp., $24.95

Aleksandar Hemon’s new novel begins in a state of doubt. One of its main characters, Vladimir Brik, is struggling to write a novel about Lazarus Averbuch, a nineteen-year-old Jewish immigrant in Chicago who was killed by the chief of police in 1908 on suspicion of being an anarchist. But Brik is full of misgivings about his project. He is an immigrant himself, whose biography and mordant wit will be familiar to readers of Hemon’s previous novel, Nowhere Man (2002), and his book of short stories, The Question of Bruno (2000). Born and raised in Sarajevo (in a secular family of Christian descent), Brik, like Hemon himself, came to the US just before the Bosnian war broke out in 1992, and ended up staying much longer than he originally intended.

Brik has been feeling disenchanted with America, partly over its post– September 11 bellicosity, and partly for more personal reasons: he is repeatedly stung by the smug provincialism of the Americans he knows, especially his wife and in-laws. Brik identifies with Lazarus Averbuch, an actual historical figure, as a fellow immigrant and as a victim of easily inflamed American prejudices—he compares the paranoia over anarchism at the turn of the century to the war on terror. But from the beginning, Brik confesses, he’s had trouble writing about Lazarus:

I wanted to be immersed in the world as it had been in 1908, I wanted to imagine how immigrants lived then. I loved doing research, poring through old newspapers and books and photos, reciting curious facts on a whim. I had to admit that I identified easily with those travails: lousy jobs, lousier tenements, the acquisition of language, the logistics of survival, the ennoblement of self-fashioning. It seemed to me I knew what constituted that world, what mattered in it. But when I wrote about it, however, all I could produce was a costumed parade of paper cutouts performing acts of high symbolic value: tearing up at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, throwing the lice-infested Old Country clothes on the sacrificial pyre of a new identity, coughing consumptive blood in large, poignant clots.

His wife, Mary, who supports Brik’s writing career with her handsome salary as a brain surgeon, has her own reservations about the Lazarus novel:

She found my idea of a Lazarus who struggled to resurrect in America a tad pretentious, particularly, she said, since my own American life was nothing to complain about. I had to know a lot about history to write about it. And how could I write about Jews when I wasn’t one?

Yet in spite of this chorus of doubts, Brik seems to have gone ahead with his project: in alternating chapters, Lazarus’s story unfolds side by side with Brik’s. The Lazarus chapters are written in the third person, and we take it that Brik is meant to be the omniscient narrator of this novel-within-a-novel, drifting in and out of his characters’ thoughts as he pieces together the history of Lazarus and his family.

When we first meet Lazarus at the opening of the book he is about to call on the Chicago chief of police, George Shippy. A shabbily dressed young man, Lazarus is an unlikely visitor to Shippy’s prosperous neighborhood, and the neighbors and servants observe him with suspicion. Lazarus’s thoughts are full of recollections of the near and distant past, through which Hemon reveals a picture of his life in the Old World and the New:

The young man stomps each of his feet to make the blisters inflicted by [his friend] Isador’s shoes less painful. He remembers the times when his sisters tried on their new dresses at home, giggling with joy. The evening walks in Kishinev; he was proud and jealous because handsome young fellows smiled at his sisters on the promenade.

Lazarus tends to recede behind the sensational events that overtake him. While Hemon takes pains to make Lazarus’s thoughts and experiences historically appropriate, he has trouble giving him an interior life that is convincing. Looking at a newspaper headline about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Lazarus—a highly literate factory worker who attends lectures and political meetings and dreams of writing for a newspaper—reflects:

Billy. That’s a nice name, a name for a fretful, yet happy, dog. Pat is weighty, serious, like a rusted hammer. He has never known anybody named Billy or Pat.

In any case, Lazarus is dead by the end of the first chapter. Chief Shippy will later tell the press that when Lazarus came to his door “the thought struck me like a streak of lightning that the man was up to no good.” Without waiting for confirmation of this intuition, Shippy grabs Lazarus, and the ensuing scuffle ends with the unarmed immigrant being shot to death by Shippy and his driver.

The rest of Lazarus’s story belongs to his older sister Olga, who shares an apartment with him (Lazarus and Olga are the only members of their large family who have emigrated to the US). Olga endures humiliating treatment by the police yet bravely tries to get them to retrieve her brother’s body from the paupers’ burial ground where they’ve dumped it so that she can give Lazarus a Jewish funeral. At first the police refuse to help her, but as details of the shooting and of Lazarus’s probable innocence leak out, public opinion shifts, leaving the police and civic leaders in a quandary.

At the same time, a group of fanatical Christians become convinced that Lazarus, like his biblical namesake, will rise from his grave. Their zeal frightens Jews, who worry that they might break out in some kind of anti-Semitic riot. The police decide that Lazarus needs a public Jewish funeral after all to calm everybody down. But it turns out that Lazarus’s body has been robbed of some of its organs by profiteers who sell them to medical schools. Olga now refuses to go through with a funeral because a Jewish body must be buried with all its parts. The police are then in the ironic position of having to plead with her for a favor in order to limit the damage caused by their own mistakes.

The Lazarus chapters are animated less by the characters of Lazarus and Olga than by Brik’s—and Hemon’s— rage at the self-satisfaction, bigotry, and hypocrisy of the police and the journalist who covers the case. Hemon gives a scathing description of the sham murder investigation, in which the detectives see only what they want to see and misinterpret every piece of evidence they find. A journalist named William P. Miller follows the investigators on their raids and ingratiates himself with the policemen by echoing their prejudices and flattering them in his articles. Hemon incorporates phrases from Miller’s purple journalistic prose into his description of the Lazarus murder and aftermath, set off by italics:

At nine o’clock sharp, Chief Shippy opens the door and sees a young man with a foreign cast of features who wears a black coat, a black slouch hat, altogether looking like a working man. In the brief all-comprehensive glance he gave his caller, William P. Miller will write in the Tribune, Chief Shippy took in a cruel, straight mouth with thick lips and a pair of gray eyes that were at the same time cold and fierce. There was a look about that slim, swarthy young man—clearly a Sicilian or a Jew—that could send a shiver of distrust into any honest man’s heart. Yet Chief Shippy, never to be unsettled by malevolence, invited the stranger into the comfort of his living room.

Hemon’s ironic use of the hack journalist’s voice suggests how the skewed interpretations and outright lies of the press filter into public opinion, and into the historical documents that a future researcher like Brik has to work with.

Meanwhile, as we read about the horrors of 1908, Brik is digging back even further into Lazarus’s history to the horrors of 1903, the year that the Averbuch family was attacked in a particularly brutal pogrom in their home city of Kishinev (now Chisinau, capital of Moldova). The pogrom eventually convinced Olga and Lazarus to emigrate. En route to the US, Lazarus lived for nine months in a refugee camp in the western Ukrainian city of Chernowitz (now Chernivtsi).

Brik receives a grant for his novel (typically, “thick apprehension” descends on him as soon as he gets word of the grant—now he will really have to go through with the book). He uses the grant money to go to Ukraine and Moldova to try to find someone who knows something about the Averbuchs, or at least to get a feel for their place of origin. The idea for Brik’s research trip to Ukraine and Moldova actually comes from his childhood friend Rora, a Sarajevan photographer whom he runs into unexpectedly at an annual Bosnian Independence Day celebration in Chicago. Brik impulsively invites Rora to come along on the trip and take pictures.

Along with a darkly funny account of the post-Soviet landscape and manners that they encounter in far Eastern Europe, Brik recounts the Sarajevo war stories that Rora likes to tell as they travel. Rora joined the paramilitary unit of a Bosnian guerrilla leader called Rambo, who organized a group of men to defend Bosnia from the Serbs at the beginning of the war. Though his cause is worthy, Rambo is a thug and extortionist who organizes the large-scale looting of Sarajevo stores; he takes pleasure in torturing and murdering rival thugs, and he forms business partnerships with the very Serb nationalists who are killing Bosnian civilians.

Rora’s Rambo stories are so violent and cold-blooded that they seem unreal; everything in them seems possible, strictly speaking, but it is hard to believe that Rora could have had the intimacy that he claims with Rambo, let alone survive to tell about it. This ambiguity is deliberate: we have already been warned by Brik that Rora is a teller of tall tales. Even as a child Rora would amuse his friends with stories about improbable travels through Western Europe and his sexual conquests there. The other boys were never sure if Rora’s stories were true, but Brik defiantly insists that it does not matter:

Even if Rora lied, even if I didn’t always believe what he told us had taken place, he was the only person who could be cast as a character in those stories…. Besides, Rora’s stories were true to our shared adolescent reveries.

Rora is an artist, Brik implies; his stories are interesting not because they describe events that actually happened but because they have their own original aesthetic qualities, and because they reveal some emotional or psychological truth. This is one of many statements that Brik makes throughout the novel defending the storyteller’s right to make things up. He complains elsewhere that Americans are always interested in verifying the truth of the stories that Brik tells them, whereas in Sarajevo,

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