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Original Essays | August 18, 2014

Ian Leslie: IMG Empathic Curiosity

Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
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The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
The Lazarus Project

bowierobert, October 23, 2008

For the most part, an excellent, intelligent book. I have spent a lot of time in Russia (not in W. Ukraine or Moldova), and I notice that the descriptions of provincial towns are dead-on perfect descriptions of Russia provincial cities in the nineties: the crazy drivers, who take pride in NOT wearing seat belts, the whores in all the run-down hotels, the complaisant businessmen with their bodyguards, the general atmosphere of sleaze and vileness, everywhere. Hemon's strongest point is his flair for significant, often gorgeously expressed, detail.

The Bosnian complaints about America are typical of Russians as well, so I guess that Russian superstition overlaps Slavic superstition: the fear of drafts, the peasant notion of "limited good"--the Bosnians at the yearly dinner rush to scarf up the food, manifesting "the timeless feeling that plenty never means enough for all." The mention of "lethal brain inflammation" reminds me of Dostoevsky, whose characters are prone to that malady.

Hemon often writes superbly (the description of the Kishinev pogrom, e.g.), but sometimes he could use a good editor. There are sentences that are outright mistakes: "the baffling absence of draft in the United States" (12)--a typo? From what follows I guess this means "the baffling lack of fear of drafts in the United States."

He makes some stylistic mistakes that reveal his foreign origins: "Of these things I sometimes wrote" (also on p. 12), should be "have written." But, of course, these are the kinds of mistakes that Nabokov sometimes made, and Hemon, like the Great Nabacocoa, can write incredibly beautiful English prose.

The character of Rora, the photographer, is a conundrum. Deliberately intended, I suppose, to be enigmatic. But the best I can make of him is that he is a petty swindler and liar, and I was not particularly disturbed by his violent demise. I do realize that he is the embodiment of what the Russians call vran'e, which means lying/boasting as almost a way of life (again, this love of rodomontade appears to be typical of Slavs in general). He, apparently, has been inured to violence, his emotions deadened. All he has left to do is swagger around enigmatically, tell jokes, make up fantasies about the war, and take (bad) photographs.

As for using the photographs ("Rora's") in the book, I think that this was a mistake. The photos from the Chicago Historical Society are fine, but "Rora's" photos don't add anything to the book--in fact, they have no redeeming aesthetic value, and I can't figure out what they are doing in the book.

The theme of "degeneracy" was in the air in 1908, and not only in the U.S. Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), the famous Italian psychiatrist and criminal anthropologist popularized the idea that criminal types have certain physical features. Hemon does a good job of running with this theme throughout the book.

I like the story of Lazarus the emigrant, and how he was mistakenly taken for an anarchist and murdered. Way too much is made, however, of the brutality of the Chicago police, esp. in regard to Olga, the sister of Lazarus. The character of Olga is overwritten (overwrought), and too much is made of her sufferings. That is, her suffering, which is self-evident, does not need belaboring, but Hemon doth protest too much (having the policemen maul her and insult her incessantly).

Oddly enough, the most sympathetic character in the book is one who never appears in person: Mary, the American wife of the main character Brik. It sometimes seems as if the whole book has been written as an apology to her from Brik, for his failure to measure up to her standards. The book is saying something like, "Our marriage is over now, dear Mary, and the pain of that bare fact is excruciating." This is not apparent from the beginning, but by the time we get to the end of the book we are aware that a major theme is Brik's lamentation over his marriage.

The narrator Brik is, so he says, not a Jew, and when he gets "home," to Sarajevo, they don't recognize his name there either. He is obviously a "nowhere man," the eternal emigrant, who has found a new country (the U.S.), only to find fault (much much fault) with it; then he goes back to his old country and does not fit in well there either.

As for the name "Brik" I have come across it only once before. Osip Brik, who WAS Jewish, was a futurist poet in the USSR, husband of Lilya Brik, famous lover of the Soviet poet Mayakovsky. Don't know if Hemon was thinking of this when choosing the name.

I have read Hemon's two previous books, one of which was billed as a novel (although it was more like a compilation of stories). The Lazarus Project is really a novel, though, Hemon's first. Despite all the caviling that I've engaged in above, I think that it's a good novel.

Hemon, and his characters, are extremely angry. Does the anger enhance or detract from the aesthetic value of his works? This is a question for the litcrits.
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