Book Review: The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon

The Lazarus Project (2008) by Bosnian-American author Aleksander Hemon represents Bosnia and Herzegovina in my Around the World For a Good Book project, albeit only a small portion of the novel takes place in that stricken country.  Still it captures the spirit of ATWFAGB in the way it travels between the “countries” of America and Europe, and of past and present. The author Hemon was born in Sarajevo of Ukrainian and Serbian ancestry. He went to Chicago in 1990 and found himself unable to return home once the war began.

The Lazarus Project tells two stories.  First, there’s Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jew who having survived a pogrom emigrates with his sister to Chicago.  There on March 2, 1908, Lazarus attempted to deliver a letter to the chief of police, the latter refusing the letter and instead shooting and killing Lazarus.  Amplifying the attrocity, the police chief concocts a tale that Lazarus was a dangerous anarchist.  From this kernel of a true story Hemon draws out the aftermath of the anti-anarchist hysteria on Lazarus’ sister Olga and his colleague Isador.

The second story, in alternating chapters, is the contemporary tale of Brik, a man much like Hemon himself – an immigrant from Sarajevo suffering a sort of survivor’s guilt for not being at home during the war and attrocities.  He’s out of work and in a loveless marriage with an American-born neurosurgeon, but holds on to the promise of writing a book about Lazarus Averbuch.  Receiving grant money for his research, he sets of on a journey through Eastern Europe to follow Lazarus’ path to America.

Accompanying Brik is a friend and photographer Rora.  Each chapter begins with a beautiful photograph with the conceit that they are from the lens of Rora himself.  Rora is also a  counterpart to Brik as a survivor of the war, participating in a paramilitary group in Sarajevo.  Rora’s stories of the war and Brik’s ceaseless curiosity about them are a major theme in this book.

This is not a cheerful book.  Brik and Rora’s journey seems to be through an Eastern Europe full of sad prostitutes, mobsters, and sterile fast-food chains.  Olga and Isador must survive insults and degradation.  It would be hard to read this book without gaining a sense of fatalism.  Yet, Hemon’s way with language redeems the book, drawing beauty out of suffering.

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