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The Lazarus Projectby Aleksandar Hemon
2004 MacArthur Fellowship
Great literary style. Expressive, deeply moving, and insightful. Perceptively intertwines past and present.
The Lazarus Project, Hemon's latest novel, is about storytelling, the nature of memory and reality, and America's relationship to the rest of the world, both past and present. It's blackly funny, crackling with intelligence, and populated by realistic, fascinating characters.
Synopses & Reviews
In two collections of stories, The Question of Bruno and the NBCC-finalist Nowhere Man, Aleksandar Hemon has earned unmatched literary acclaim and a reputation as one of the English language as most original and moving wordsmiths. In The Lazarus Project, Hemon has turned these talents to an embracing novel that intertwines haunting historical atmosphere and detail with sharp and shimmering — sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking — contemporary storytelling.
On March 2, 1908, nineteen-year-old Lazarus Averbuch, a recent Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe to Chicago, knocked on the front door of the house of George Shippy, the chief of Chicago police. When Shippy came to the door, Averbuch offered him what he said was an important letter. Instead of taking the letter, Shippy shot Averbuch twice, killing him. When Shippy released a statement casting Averbuch as a would-be anarchist assassin and agent of foreign political operatives, he all but set off a city and a country already simmering with ethnic and political tensions.
Now, in the twenty-first century, a young writer in Chicago, Brik, also from Eastern Europe, becomes obsessed with Lazarusas story — what really happened, and why? In order to understand Averbuch, Brik and his friend Rora — who overflows with stories of his life as a Sarajevo war photographer — retrace Averbuchas path across Eastern Europe, through a history of pogroms and poverty, and through a present-day landscape of cheap mafiosi and cheaper prostitutes.
The stories of Averbuch and Brik become inextricably entwined, augmented by the photographs that Rora takes on their journey, creating a truly original, provocative, and entertaining novel that will confirm Hemon once and for all as one of the most dynamic and essential literary voices of our time.
"MacArthur genius Hemon in his third book (after Nowhere Man) intelligently unpacks 100 years' worth of immigrant disillusion, displacement and desperation. As fears of the anarchist movement roil 1908 Chicago, the chief of police guns down Lazarus Averbuch, an eastern European immigrant Jew who showed up at the chief's doorstep to deliver a note. Almost a century later, Bosnian-American writer Vladimir Brik secures a coveted grant and begins working on a book about Lazarus; his research takes him and fellow Bosnian Rora, a fast-talking photographer whose photos appear throughout the novel, on a twisted tour of eastern Europe (there are brothel-hotels, bouts of violence, gallons of coffee and many fabulist stories from Rora) that ends up being more a journey into their own pasts than a fact-finding mission. Sharing equal narrative duty is the story of Olga Averbuch, Lazarus's sister, who, hounded by the police and the press (the Tribune reporter is especially vile), is faced with another shock: the disappearance of her brother's body from his potter's grave. (His name, after all, was Lazarus.) Hemon's workmanlike prose underscores his piercing wit, and between the murders that bookend the novel, there's pathos and outrage enough to chip away at even the hardest of hearts." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'The Lazarus Project,' the masterful new novel from the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon, opens with a passage that recalls the invocations of epic poetry: 'The time and place,' Hemon tells us, 'are the only things I am certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago. Beyond that is the haze of history and pain, and now I plunge.' Which muses Hemon invoked in writing this troubling, funny and redemptive... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) novel are not named, though one supposes that Clio, the muse of history, must have had some involvement, as well as Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. If there were muses of 'stolen cars and sadness' — his country's 'main exports,' according to Hemon — they would no doubt have played a role as well. At the heart of 'The Lazarus Project' is a true story: On March 2, 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Eastern European Jewish immigrant and the survivor of an Easter 1903 pogrom in the village of Kishinev, knocked on the door of George Shippy, the Chicago chief of police. Their encounter culminated with Shippy shooting and killing Lazarus, whom he claimed was an anarchist. Hemon imagines that a hundred years later, a non-Jewish Bosnian immigrant named Brik, who works in Chicago as a teacher and journalist, wins a grant to do research for a book on Lazarus. His plan, he says, is to 'follow Lazarus all the way back to the pogrom in Kishinev, to the time before America. I needed to reimagine what I could not retrieve; I needed to see what I could not imagine.' To aid him in the 'seeing,' he enlists Rora, a photographer he knew in high school in Sarajevo who has also ended up in Chicago. Together, they set off on a surreal journey to Eastern Europe, a landscape of shifting frontiers in which criminal wealth feeds off poverty and 24-hour supermarkets crop up alongside outdoor markets. 'Men loitered at the street corners,' Brik says, 'offering sotto voce to sell me something very cheaply, which I refused even though I had no idea what it was.' The structure of 'The Lazarus Project' is ingenious. Alternating chapters give us the story of Lazarus' killing (the story Brik is writing) and the story of Brik's own journey in search of Lazarus. Then, as the novel progresses, these narratives begin, eerily, to merge. Characters from Brik's life — or versions of them — show up in Lazarus' story. Even Brik himself makes a brief appearance. It's a conceit that Hemon justifies through a series of meditations on the idea of resurrection that Lazarus, by his very name, evokes. Art is resurrection, but so is history, a point that Hemon drives home when he notes (ruefully) the 1908 newspaper editorials bemoaning 'the weak laws that allowed the foreign anarchist pestilence to breed parasitically on the American body politic. The war against anarchism was much like the current war on terror — funny how old habits never die.' Brik's own war is with America itself. For him, America is a country in which 'belief and delusion are incestuous siblings,' in which 'the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth — reality is the fastest (growing) American commodity.' In a key moment, he recalls arguing with his wife, a surgeon, about the photos from Abu Ghraib. She sees in the photographs 'essentially decent American kids acting upon a misguided belief they were protecting freedom.' Brik sees 'young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else's life and death.' Eventually, Brik will find himself succumbing to that same heady cocktail, 'the lethal combination of wrath and good intentions' that leads to pleasure in brutality. Alas, by this point there is every suggestion that his marriage may be just one of the casualties. Whether describing turn-of-the-century Chicago, with its mean tenements and decrepit outhouses, or the 'onionesque armpits' of a Moldovan pimp or an 'unreal McDonald's' in Moldova, 'shiny and sovereign and structurally optimistic,' Hemon is as much a writer of the senses as of the intellect. He can be very funny: The novel is full of jokes and linguistic riffs that justify comparisons to Nabokov. And though the prose occasionally lapses into turgidity ('Olga's stomach is churning and she would vomit if there were anything in it to disgorge'), these overwrought moments are more than made up for by the many gorgeous ones. (In the aftermath of the pogrom: 'The down from torn pillows floating, like souls, through the fog of what had just happened.') For beauty and violence, in Hemon's universe, are far from mutually exclusive. Indeed, he seems determined not to let his readers (particularly his American readers) escape the experience of war as a personal affront and a personal transformation. As Brik observes of the Moldovan woman who serves, in the novel, as a sort of gatekeeper of Jewish history, 'She would one day die, and so would Rora, and so would I. They were me. We lived the same life: we would vanish into the same death. We were like everybody else, because there was nobody like us.' David Leavitt's most recent novel, 'The Indian Clerk,' is a finalist for this year's PEN/Faulkner Prize." Reviewed by David Leavitt, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"An extraordinary writer: one who seems not simply gifted but necessary." The New York Times
"[A] novel worth reading with as much fire as its composition must have demanded." Library Journal
"The Lazarus Project takes a healthy swing at the all-inclusive, the gripping, at the truly audacious....Hemon's is a majestic talent.... His prose gets stranger and sharper as it goes, which seems right for such a journey: The guide gets more firm as the cave walls light up and the shadows enlarge. It's the kind of thing only a full-fledged talent can do." Chicago Tribune
"A profoundly moving novel....A literary page-turner that combines narrative momentum with meditations on identity and mortality." Kirkus Reviews
"Hemon can't write a boring sentence, and the English language (which he adopted at a late age) is the richer for it." Gary Shteyngart, The New York Times Book Review
The much anticipated novel from MacArthur Award-winning writer Hemon is a story of historical sweep and contemporary insight crafted in a dazzlingly original style. Illustrated.
The only novel from MacArthur Genius Award winner, Aleksandar Hemon — the National Book Critics Circle Award winning The Lazarus Project.
On March 2, 1908, nineteen-year-old Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant, was shot to death on the doorstep of the Chicago chief of police and cast as a would-be anarchist assassin.
A century later, a young Eastern European writer in Chicago named Brik becomes obsessed with Lazarus's story. Brik enlists his friend Rora-a war photographer from Sarajevo-to join him in retracing Averbuch's path.
Through a history of pogroms and poverty, and a prism of a present-day landscape of cheap mafiosi and even cheaper prostitutes, the stories of Averbuch and Brik become inextricably intertwined, creating a truly original, provocative, and entertaining novel that confirms Aleksandar Hemon, often compared to Vladimir Nabokov, as one of the most dynamic and essential literary voices of our time.
From the author of The Book of My Lives.
About the Author
Born in Sarajevo, Aleksandar Hemon visited Chicago in 1992, intending to stay for a matter of months. While he was there, Sarajevo came under siege, and he was unable to return home. Hemon wrote his first story in English in 1995. His work now appears regularly in The New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hemon was awarded a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2004. Riverhead will publish Hemon's next book, Love and Obstacles, in 2009.
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