Chris Horne, April 17, 2009 (view all comments by Chris Horne)
Mr. Hemon has taken the historical mystery of the death of Lazarus Averbuch in 1908 and created a rich novel around it. His fictional hero, Vladimir Brik, is lost in America culture and in his life, and decides to solve the mystery behind the circumstances of Lazarus' death. The name Lazarus is a methaphor for the author who himself left the Balkans in the civil war of the 1990's, for Brik and for the New Testament Lazarus. Mr. Hemon is clearly writing about his former homeland when Brik returns there to solve the mystery. This is not a murder mystery (though it functions as one) but the tale of a man seeking his salvation and meaning of his life through the completion of a quest.
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bowierobert, October 23, 2008 (view all comments by bowierobert)
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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Great literary style. Expressive, deeply moving, and insightful. Perceptively intertwines past and present.
by Jill Owens,
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.
by Jill Owens
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"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.)
by The New York Times,
"An extraordinary writer: one who seems not simply gifted but necessary."
by Library Journal,
"[A] novel worth reading with as much fire as its composition must have demanded."
by Chicago Tribune,
"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."
by Kirkus Reviews,
"A profoundly moving novel....A literary page-turner that combines narrative momentum with meditations on identity and mortality."
by Gary Shteyngart, The New York Times Book Review,
"Hemon can't write a boring sentence, and the English language (which he adopted at a late age) is the richer for it."
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.
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