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…

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