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,
disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own.
These reflections on veracity seem to be an oblique expression of anxiety about Brik’s book on Lazarus. A novelist, of course, is free to make things up, but having chosen a historical subject for his novel, Brik has to contend with the historical record, on the one hand, and with all the gaps in that record on the other, which demand that he take imaginative liberties with the story if he wants to retell it from the perspective of Lazarus and Olga.
Those gaps are becoming more apparent as Brik gets nowhere with his research in the eastern lands. In Chernivtsi, Brik goes to the Jewish Center to see if they have any records of Lazarus while he was at the refugee camp. But the JC is not a place for archival research. Its bookshelves are empty, and its director, Chaim Gruzenberg, is “not an expert in history…. His job was to provide food and care for the elderly Jews in the town, those who had no family left.” Gruzenberg denies Brik interviews with his elderly Jewish clients and seems impatient with Brik’s project. “This town was always full of refugees from Kishinev or some other place, escaping from the Russians and the Romanians and the Germans. Those who survived went elsewhere, few stayed. Not many people are left, and they are dying, too,” he tells Brik, by way of dismissal.
In Chisinau, their guide at the Jewish Community Center is Iuliana, a twenty-five-year-old history student. Brik finds her unflagging, sad-eyed solemnity somehow incongruous with the violent history she’s reciting, which is so unremittingly grim it could only be black comedy:
I was rapt listening to her sleeptalking through the history of the Jewish community in her country: the long presence, the restrictive laws of the Russian Empire, the many pogroms, the Romanian occupation, the Holocaust, the Soviet occupation, one fucking thing after another—and here we were now. She rested her hands over her groin, as people do at funerals.
Since there are no living Averbuchs left in Kishinev, Iuliana takes him and Rora to the cemetery, where there promise to be many dead ones. Here we reach the emotional climax of Brik’s story. Wandering among the graves, Brik feels something come loose in him:
I was suddenly surrounded by a herd of mausoleums, their little portals ajar, falling off their hinges, the cavernous darkness gaping through a broken wall. The voices of Iuliana and Rora were distant, and then were gone. Everything I had been was now very far away; I reached elsewhere….
Some part of my life ended there, among those empty graves; it was then that I started mourning. I can tell you that now, now that there is little but mourning.
Brik has said relatively little so far about his life in Sarajevo, his departure, or his long-distance experience of the war. These subjects formed the center of Hemon’s earlier books, Nowhere Man and The Question of Bruno. Nowhere Man recounts the life of Josef Pronek, another Sarajevan who found himself in the US just before the Bosnian war began and saw the shelling of his home city on CNN while trapped in a country whose natives seemed to him ridiculous in their ingenuous self-absorption. Pronek’s life story was told for him primarily by a fellow Bosnian immigrant narrator whose relationship to Pronek was not precisely specified but who seemed already to have gone through the painful sense of dislocation that Pronek experiences in America. This narrator cast Pronek’s Sarajevo life in an elegiac light, and his tenderness for his subject’s feelings made us see in Pronek a vulnerability that Pronek himself couldn’t acknowledge.
In The Lazarus Project, we have no wiser narrator, only Brik himself— brooding, sardonic, insecure, hardly tender toward himself or anyone else—who, until the moment in the Kichenev cemetery, had not yet done any mourning. He prefers to think about everything else but his old life in Bosnia, whether Rora’s stories or his faltering marriage. The novel approaches Brik’s pain over the loss of his country obliquely and intermittently, for that is the only way that Brik himself has approached it. But after wandering the cemetery, Brik asks Iuliana a pointed question:
“How do you feel about the pogrom?”
“How do I feel about the pogrom?”
“Yes. How do you feel about the pogrom?”
Silence. Then she said:
“That outburst of bestial anti-Semitism is indelibly stamped upon our national consciousness.”
I chortled, but she was not kidding….
“See, I am actually Bosnian,” I said…. “And when I think about what happened in Bosnia, I feel this filthy fury, this rage at the world. Sometimes, I fantasize about breaking the kneecaps of Karad ic´, the war criminal. Or see myself smashing someone’s jaw with a hammer…. I imagine him writhing in pain, on the floor, then I hammer his elbows, too…. Do you ever want to break someone’s jaw?”
“You are strange,” she said. “I thought you are from America.”
He is but he isn’t. The absurdity of Brik’s position is suddenly devastatingly clear. He is not an ordinary young American on a Jewish heritage tour, but a refugee from another of the twentieth century’s disasters. He narrowly escaped his own genocidal war and has friends and family who didn’t. A Bosnian who sends himself on a tour of some of the most depressing parts of Eastern Europe to ask about their dead Jews—was there no easier way to get in touch with his feelings?
But something else is articulated here besides Brik’s pain and rage: a skepticism that has been building throughout his Eastern travels about the extent to which any of us can feel genuine sorrow over historical catastrophes that are well known to us but remote from our own lives. Brik smirks at the rote, pious solemnity he finds in Iuliana’s well-intentioned account, but admits elsewhere to his own numb sense of detachment from historical relics that they see on their trip. What is it that we’re looking for, the novel seems to ask, when we visit the sites of historical atrocities, or read about them in novels, or watch them reenacted in movies? What kind of feeling can a novelist writing about a fifty- or hundred-year-old war crime hope to elicit in his contemporary readers? Visceral disgust? Pornographic interest? Solemn indignation? Is the best he can hope for historical clarification, or a pointed analogy to current events?
The most immediate implication of these questions would seem to be for Brik’s Lazarus story itself, and it is the great disappointment of the novel that the subtle and provocative questions suggested in one half of it seem to go unheeded in the other. Hemon seems to be hedging his bets, raising doubts about the nature of the Lazarus project in the Brik chapters, while in the Lazarus chapters the narrator bustles along as if none of these questions existed, confidently peering into the characters’ souls, speaking in their voices, and, it turns out, exploiting historical catastrophes for emotional effect.
The Lazarus chapters culminate in a scene of a violent attack on Jews. Although the 1903 pogrom might have stayed in the background of the Averbuchs’ story, it is in fact described in detail by Olga, in a kind of flashback of the entire incident that overwhelms her while she tries to decide whether she will agree to Lazarus’s Jewish funeral. Though Olga does not express her thoughts to anyone else, the story seems to be carefully arranged for the benefit of someone unfamiliar with the event. She sets the scene of the moments before the attack:
Roza sat at the table, apparently waiting for her lunch, an empty plate before her. Always hungry, she was.
Mother was busying herself at the stove, banging the pots, stirring the kasha, boiling the eggs, but we could see that she did not know what she was doing.
We were all thinking, Maybe they will pass our house. But we knew they would not. Fear leavened in my stomach.
Allowed to speak in the first person for the first time, Olga is burdened with embarrassing singsong Yiddishisms (“Always hungry, she was”; “Such a boy he always was”). She goes on to describe their Gentile neighbors and a police officer breaking into the house, beating the men, and raping or attempting to rape the women. Nothing particularly unexpected happens; if anything, the description confirms our sense that pogroms are more or less alike:
Someone plucked Lazarus out of my arms and threw himself on top of me. The swine pulled up my dress all the way to cover my face. He was groping for my undergarments. His breath stank of kvass and garlic.
Lazarus jumped on his back and dug his nails into his cheeks…. The swine grasped Lazarus’s hands. He turned around and punched him, once, then twice. Blood streamed out of Lazarus’s nose. He held Lazarus by the throat, bashing his face with the other hand, over and over again.
The mix of cliché and kitsch (the kvass-and-garlic breath of the pogromchik, the heavy-handed reference to death “passing over” the Jews’ house) does no service to the Averbuchs, who seem more than ever like puppets, briefly and shoddily animated so that we can watch them act out the most terrifying and humiliating scenes of their lives.
The beating of the Averbuchs during the pogrom echoes a fatal beating that Lazarus’s neighbor in Chicago receives from two police detectives, for no other reason than that he lives next door and is therefore a presumed anarchist. The parallel between the cruelty that Lazarus and Olga face at the hands of the Chicago police and the cruelty of the European pogrom, in which the local police participate, seems aimed to puncture the kind of American self-congratulation that Brik often encounters and rails against, a complacency about the success of the “melting pot” that is contradicted by a history of immigrant poverty and a tradition of anti-immigrant prejudice. As in his previous books, Hemon makes piercing observations about American habits, mythology, and “the sumptuous palette of American fears.” But the pogrom scene adds nothing to his critique of American culture, or to his more general exploration of the human capacity for violence.
Hemon’s attempt to dramatize the pogrom, rather than simply describing it, is at the heart of the problem: it seems a cheap trick, a shortcut to stir pity or horror. While Brik’s part of the novel is subtle in its examination of how violence impresses itself on the minds of its victims, the part about Lazarus degenerates into melodrama as the Averbuchs are exposed to one disaster after another. Their reactions are not sufficiently rich to give their stories a psychological rather than a historical or simply prurient interest.
The kind of dual structure that Hemon uses in The Lazarus Project, in which the novel shuttles readers back and forth between the historical past and the present, is a relatively new development (encouraged, perhaps, by A.S. Byatt’s Possession, 1990) that has become common during the last decade. Recent books by Anita Desai (The ZigZag Way, 2004), Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, 2007), and Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated, 2002), for example, all combine contemporary narratives with those set during violent historical episodes (the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the reign of the sadistic Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe) in order to show the continuing influence of the past—especially the political past—on characters who live in the present. The authors claim for themselves unlimited omniscience, entering the thoughts of both the contemporary and historical characters in equal measure, and describing horrific violence from the perspectives of characters who endure it.
All of these books, like The Lazarus Project, are ambitious, attempting to bring to life at least two different historical epochs, each with its own cast of characters, in about three hundred pages. But also like The Lazarus Project, their success in bringing together the historical and present-day narratives is mixed, and the novels seem overly reliant on the drama of the historical material for their tension. In some cases the trials of the contemporary characters seem inconsequential beside the persecution, torture, and narrow escapes from death experienced by their forebears. More often, the historical characters, compared to those of the present day, are thin and schematic, their interior world constricted as the writers concentrate mainly on the brute experiences of the historical moment.
The work of W.G. Sebald, particularly his novel The Emigrants (1993), shows that a different approach to historical characters is possible. In The Emigrants, a narrator who may or may not be Sebald himself recounts the lives of four men of the twentieth century (at least some of whom seem to have actually existed). All four had to leave their homes in Lithuania or Germany for exile in England or the US, two of them displaced by World War II and the Holocaust. Sebald does not attempt to dramatize these men’s lives firsthand—everything we know about them is told to us by the narrator, who either knew the men personally or became interested in reconstructing their life stories.
Sebald does not make use of the inherent drama of some of the historical episodes; in fact, the slow unfolding of his stories and his even, unexcitable, melancholic tone can sometimes try his readers’ patience. But Sebald shows that someone we know only at secondhand can be as subtle and complicated as a character whom the author decides to imagine fully. His approach is not any more or less “fictional” than Hemon’s, no more or less beholden to historical fact. But his narrator admits, implicitly, to not understanding everything about his subjects, and thus grants them a measure of privacy and enigma that they lose in the omniscient narrative; paradoxically, they seem more plausible and real than many other historical characters in recent novels whose consciousness is explored at length. Questions about the narrator himself—his own history, his reliability, his motive in telling the stories—become an important part of the novel, thus linking present with past.
Certainly in the case of The Lazarus Project, it’s more interesting to hear Brik thinking about Lazarus in his own voice than to read a dramatization of Lazarus’s experience. Indeed, Brik’s doubts—about the character of Lazarus, the novel, the research, the trip, his marriage, America, the human race —are the most vital part of the book. Brik’s apprehensiveness about the Lazarus novel turns out to be justified, but he’s been mulling over the wrong questions, or at least sidestepping the most important one. The great risk of the novel is not in taking liberties with the facts of Lazarus’s story, but in attempting to bring him back to life from the inside. Unwittingly or not, it shows us the limits of omniscience.