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Aleksandar Hemon

In 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a recent Jewish immigrant to Chicago who had survived one of the first pogroms in Russia, went to the house of the Chicago chief of police. His motivations are unknown. The police chief, afraid that Lazarus was an anarchist, shot him within minutes of answering the door. Lazarus's sister, Olga, was left behind to answer for her brother's supposedly communist sympathies, and the city was whipped into an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, patriotic frenzy, primarily by politicians and the media. Aleksandar Hemon

Brik, the narrator of The Lazarus Project, is a present-day Bosnian immigrant who is fascinated with Lazarus's story. Brik's marriage to Mary, an American, is on shaky ground, and when he secures grant money for his research, he takes the opportunity to travel across Eastern Europe with his old friend Rora in search of Lazarus's past and his own future.

Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project is partly about reconstructing Lazarus's story. But it is also a book about storytelling, about the nature of memory and reality, and about the relationship of America to the rest of the world, then and now. As Hemon says, "To think that reality is something that is simply out there, and that all you need to do as a writer is to describe it — that is far too simple."

Hemon, who came to the United States in 1992 from his native Bosnia and then stayed on after war broke out in Sarajevo, began writing in English in 1995. He won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004, and has drawn comparisons to Nabokov both because of his circumstances and his crackling, inventive, and blackly funny prose. The New York Times has called him "an extraordinary writer....not simply gifted, but necessary." Kirkus Reviews calls The Lazarus Project "a profoundly moving novel....A literary page-turner that combines narrative momentum with meditations on identity and mortality." Library Journal raves, "a novel worth reading with as much fire as its composition must have demanded." In our interview, Hemon discusses storytelling, canvassing for Greenpeace, Bosnian jokes, and his remarkable new work.

Jill Owens: How did you come across Lazarus Averbuch's story?

Aleksandar Hemon: A friend of mine gave me a book called An Accidental Anarchist by Walter Roth and Joe Kraus, which is a historical account of the Lazarus Averbuch killing and its aftermath. My friend knew I like to read history books just for the hell of it. It's a small book, but it's very well researched, and the story is very well told. I read it and found it extremely interesting. I also found two photos of Lazarus in the book — including a photo of Lazarus, dead, sitting in a chair — and they are in my book, also. It was those photos that made me realize I wanted to write a book, and that I wanted to include the photos in the book, and then I started plotting the way to do that.

Jill: I read that you went to Eastern Europe with a photographer friend, much like Brik, to research the book. What was a memorable experience you had in Eastern Europe during that trip?

Hemon: Yes, we went to collect impressions and experiences. I already knew there would be two characters in that story line, the narrator and the photographer. We would speculate what the two of them might think or see, or what kind of photographs Rora might take.

The most memorable experience, if they can really be graded, was visiting the Jewish cemetery in Chişinău, which used to be Kishinev. It's one of the most amazing places I've ever been. Most of the cemetery had been destroyed by the Soviets, but there's a little corner that is preserved. Some of the tombstones are preserved; there is someone who is taking care of them. Some of them are completely overgrown and ruined, and it's very hard to look at that. Many of them were desecrated. Some had writing in Russian that said, "Do not take down. There is family still."

If there is an entrance into the underworld, that is where it is.

Jill: There are some strong parallels, as Brik points out, between Lazarus's time, where anarchists are presumed to be threatening America around every corner, and the present, where dissenting voices are seen as threatening and unpatriotic.

Hemon: What I found interesting about the original Lazarus's story was the rhetoric, which hasn't changed much, and also the need to have a foreign enemy that could be cast as the opposite of us. That strategy has existed for a long time; it's always been around. It has happened a few times between 1908 and 2008.

It's a useful strategy. It's not just an American strategy, obviously; a lot of governments and people who like to stay in power cultivate their enemies. It's easier if those enemies are somehow easily identifiable, and presumably different than us, whoever we may be.

Those were things that interested me. But my primary interests were the tragic story of Lazarus, and the story of his sister Olga, and the photos. There was a cluster of interests that attracted me. Just one of them may not have been enough, but the fact that all those were in that story, surrounding the Lazarus Averbuch killing, attracted me.

Jill: Two of the photographs in the book are of Lazarus himself. Where do the rest of the photographs come from?

Hemon: The archival photographs come from the archive of the Chicago Historical Society, most of them from the collection that came from the Chicago Daily News, which is long gone. The Chicago Historical Society has about thirty years of photographs from the Daily News. It's immense; it's infinite. I looked through their collection a number of times. It's an amazing place. Many of those photos are from glass plates, not even from film.

The other photos came from our trip, from my friend Velibor Božović. He took about twelve hundred photos, and then we picked twelve, from that mountain of photos.

Jill: Olga is an incredibly poignant character; she is the lens for the human reality of what happened to Lazarus. How did you approach writing her character?

Hemon: In the real account, Olga is a little less alone. There were people who were trying to help her, though it did not work out too well. The same year, she went back to Europe and then vanished from history, probably in the Holocaust.

It was a challenge for me to write about a woman. What I recognized, what I thought I could write about, was her grief. Not that I had experienced that kind of grief, but somehow I thought I could recognize and empathize with and imagine it. I liked her love for her brother.

Jill: And Rora's character is fascinating. He's opaque, a reversal of Brik, in many ways. He's also the primary storyteller in the book.

Hemon: Yes. I think of him as a kind of epic character — epic in the sense that Ulysses is an epic character, or one of the heroes of the Iliad. When they enter the narrative, they are already complete. They have no psychological trajectory that takes them to that point in the narrative, wherever that point is. They enter complete, and therefore their means of self-expression are either stories or actions. They tell stories that are sovereign and self-sufficient. Or they act; they talk about their actions.

That's the exact opposite of Brik, who is a pensive self-examiner. My idea was to have those two poles, two opposite concepts of narration, be together, experiencing things.

Jill: Rora doesn't need epiphanies, whereas Brik is constantly searching them out.

Hemon: Right. Rora requires no understanding of the world around him. He knows everything that needs to be known. Also, I think that's why he's a photographer. Photography, in a sense, is always complete. You have to interpret beyond the photograph, but the interpretation is not inherent in the thing itself. That's why photography is a medium more conducive to Rora's use.

Jill: In a conversation with Nathan Englander published by Boldtype, you said, "I think that on the one hand, generally, fiction helps constitute reality — rather than reflect it." Various realities show up in this book — those of memory, imagination, storytelling, or desire. How would you describe the relationship between fiction and reality?

Hemon: They are continuous, in some ways. I don't think reality is self-evident, what we call reality. Nabokov said it was a word that should be used only within quotation marks. That doesn't mean that everything is unreal, or that everything is equally real. It's far more complicated than that.

The point is that to understand reality, to recognize it as reality, we have to narrate it to ourselves, so to speak, or to each other, in various ways. We have to tell a story of reality to ourselves. A recent study in the New York Times showed that people apparently imagine themselves as characters in the stories of their lives. That is, people construct stories of their lives and tell them to themselves. In those stories, they imagine themselves as heroic, or honest, and they try to act accordingly. If they don't, they treat it as something that is out of character.

That also means that some stories may come from the outside, that they are not absolutely original. There are models for these stories. The honest, decent guys who invade foreign countries. A culture generates those stories, and we absorb many of them passively. Many stories also come from books, but we modify them so we can tell them about ourselves. In doing so, we constitute at least chunks of reality in which we can live. To think that reality is something that is simply out there, and that all you need to do as a writer is to describe it — that is far too simple.

Things get even more complicated if you're talking about the past. That is, the past as something that I have not experienced, something before me. How do I relate to it, as a person? What kind of story can I tell about it? The problem is not simply a matter of mental and intellectual acrobatics. If we have a human need, as I think we do, to relate and empathize with and understand other people's suffering, then how do we not turn someone else's suffering into a conventional story of that suffering? How do we not dismiss it as something that is equally real as some other story of suffering? That's a conundrum that I as a writer had to deal with.

Jill: Brik's recollection ritual before he goes to sleep, in which he's trying to control his memory of his life, reminds me of something Victor Plavchuk says in Nowhere Man, describing a room in Ukraine. It had "bare walls: although my memory keeps stretching on its toes to hang up a Lenin picture." That seems to me one of the best depictions of the way memory, imagination, and desire work together to create story.

Hemon: Yes. Memory is always incomplete. We always add things to it. It's impossible to perfectly remember things that happen to us. The only way you can maybe reconstruct it fully is in collaboration with other people. If my room right now is full of people who are listening to this conversation, we would be able to reconstruct this conversation better than if it was only the two of us.

Memory is always reinventing your experience as a story that you tell yourself. When people imagine their life as stories, they also imagine their past life as stories. They create their experiences to fit those story lines. That's exciting for a storyteller. In other words, if you start recollecting, you might end up telling a story, no matter what it is. But it also makes the past evanescent and elusive, and that's a problem if you have a collective past to recount and deal with.

Jill: Brik's relationship with his wife, Mary, is strongly connected to his relationship with America itself.

Hemon: Brik says at one point, "How do I see America? I look to my left. I look at Mary." That's part of the problem with their marriage. We never really meet Mary. All we know about Mary is what Brik tells us, so the reports on Mary are biased. But his problems with Mary and his problems with America are to some extent interchangeable, and that is in some ways unjust to Mary, but that is the way it is.

They have an argument about the Abu Ghraib pictures, because he somehow sees her as representing America, which is of course not a tenable position, if you are living with a person or if you love a person. That is their problem.

Jill: He seems drawn to her goodness, and her work as a neurosurgeon, but also frustrated by her naivety.

Hemon: Yes, and he's frustrated by the fact that she's working and he's not, too. Somehow he thinks that his perceived moral superiority could make up for the absence of economic equality in the marriage. He sees her as someone who is not so much naive, but who holds a belief which is widespread in America that America is founded on good intentions, and what all Americans have are good intentions. If we wage a war and kill a large number of people and torture them along the way, that's out of good intentions. In other words, we are inherently good, no matter what we do. Despite all the crimes that the government may have committed, slavery, racism, wars, torture, lies, that's all not as bad as it would be somewhere else, because we do have good intentions.

This is something I have encountered, not with my ex-wife, but just talking to people. In some ways, you cannot blame people for that, people who believe in the goodness of at least part of humanity. That's not something that people should be beaten for. On the other hand, the end result of that is the Iraq fiasco. Large numbers of people believe, "We are going there with good intentions — what can go wrong?"

I believe it's the act that counts, not the intentions.

Jill: You do a wonderful job describing masses of people, picking particular images out of a crowd in a way that conveys the crowd's diversity and scope. The city of Chicago itself in the early twentieth century is almost a character in the book. How has the city changed or stayed the same over the last century?

Hemon: In some ways it's changed dramatically, in that most of the landscapes from the last century are completely gone. Nothing from Maxwell Street, the Jewish ghetto, is retained. There are barely traces left.

What is the same is the inflow of immigrants who are interacting with the city, which creates a particular kind of exciting energy for Chicago. For any big city, for that matter, but Chicago is famously an immigrant city. I read once in some Chicago publication that 120 languages are spoken in the part of the city that I live in. That's amazing to me. I love that. I love that about Chicago, I love that about cities.

Jill: What, if anything, do you think is being resurrected in this novel?

Hemon: In some ways, Lazarus and Olga and all those who died in the book are temporarily and provisionally resurrected through storytelling. One of the powers of storytelling is that it keeps people alive. Obviously their bodies are absent and will never come back, but in storytelling, when you talk about other people's lives, it's the Thousand and One Nights structure.

There's a great book that's just come out, by Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati. I loved it, and it makes the same point about stories. (We're friends, but we never talked about it before we read each other's books.) Stories on the one hand stay a person's death — they postpone it, they defer it — but also in those stories, the person lives more fully. That's a paradox; once people are gone, all you can do is tell stories about them or not tell stories about them. I like to tell stories about them. The resurrection can only be narrative.

Jill: In both Nowhere Man and Lazarus, you write of a "sneeze" of joy and a "sneeze" of happiness. There is that sense, when something joyful happens, of it being an unexpected, forceful event. Those jolts of humor and levity are welcome in a book that deals with a lot of heavy subjects.

Hemon: Yes, just a momentary joy. It's elusive and evanescent; it just happens and then it's gone. I can miss it sometimes, if I'm not careful. For instance, you see a particular angle of light as you walk down the street, but if you walk further, fifty yards down the street, you miss it. Or just the memory of something, or the taste of an apple.

There is a whole industry in this country which is based on the belief that happiness and joy could be organized activities. That if you set yourself in a particular way, if you set yourself right, you'll be happy, morning to evening, all day long. My experience of life is that you have moments of joy and moments of sadness. You can be happy and then sadness overwhelms you; one can't go without the other. I don't think I should work to eliminate sadness so I can live with unlimited happiness.

Jill: In that same conversation with Nathan Englander, you tell a little story, almost a joke, about shooting peasants instead of pheasants, which you describe as "dessert after a heavy meal." Would you put the Muja jokes that Rora tells in that same category?

Hemon: No. I like telling those jokes, but Rora also likes telling them. It fits his character. Those characters, Muja and Suja, are stock characters in Bosnian jokes. But also, in the second immigrant joke, Suja comes to America and Muja shows him his house, and his bank, and his car, and his pool, and his wife, and Suja asks him, "Who's that with her?" and he says "That's me." The American dream often happens to someone else. You know the story, but it's not happening to you, for a lot of people. Somehow it's still supposed to make you feel better.

All those jokes are funny in Bosnian, obviously, but they also have something to do with the whole situation of immigration in the book.

Jill: Your prose is so inventive, down to the sentence structure as well as the actual language, that it makes reading a very fresh experience. To the extent that you do, how do you think about your own prose?

Hemon: I don't really have a method that I practiced and started repeating. The only way that I can describe it is that I hear my sentences as I write them, and I write in longhand, so it's more immediate. When I read them again, I hear them, and I can fine-tune them, quite literally.

I don't do that often, but just as an extreme example, there were sentences — in this book, but in early books even more — where I actually counted beats in the sentences. The music of it is very important to me. I have no way of knowing whether the reader might hear the same kind of music, but that's what I go by.

Music is an incomplete parallel, because the meaning obviously comes into play. It's not just the sound. There's something that Russian formal literary theorists refer to that could be translated as "making wondrous" or "making miraculous" or "making strange." Here, it's normally described as "defamiliarization," which is an entirely different point. But they thought that literature does that by treating language differently than the way that language is treated in everyday communication.

What I like to do, and this is where music fits in, is try to unpack the language so that it's different from the way we talk, or the way that newspapers talk, or television talks. It might put off a lot of readers, but what I want to say can't be plainly said, sometimes. Often. Too often, perhaps.

Jill: That's interesting that you say that about counting beats in your writing, because you mention poetry often in your books, and your writing is reflexive in some of the same ways that poetry can be — a word or phrase will be repeated, turned, with subtle shifts of meaning over time. Do you write poetry?

Hemon: I did write poetry, but it was really, really bad. You were right — it was bad because I didn't do what you were just describing, which I try to do in my prose. I suppose I have some amount of poetic instinct that I translate into prose. I do read a lot of poetry, and I read it for pleasure, obviously, but I also read it because I admire the way it puts pressure on language. I love that.

Some of the writers that I like a lot like Nabokov or Michael Ondaatje, they write prose like poetry (though it's not the only criteria). Ondaatje, in fact, writes poetry as well. They put that kind of pressure on language. It's never just reporting. It's never just descriptive. Language has a certain quality in itself that is beyond descriptive, and in that situation, something transformative happens, and that is what I like to think I'm after.

Jill: You mentioned Nabokov, who you're often compared to. Who else do you consider your literary influences?

Hemon: I like writers who come from the Slavic language tradition. A lot of Russians, and a Yugoslav writer who died in 1989, called Danilo Kis. I'm sure he would have won the Nobel Prize and been a household name, had he not died. I read him in our native language, the language that we shared. I also like Isaac Babel. Chekov. He's not a master of language; Nabokov said, "Chekov's sentences go to parties dressed in everyday clothes." But I love him; I love his kindness and the way he loves his people, and how forgiving and smart and generous he is.

Jill: I noticed the bartender in Lazarus's story was named Bruno Schulz.

Hemon: Yes, that's a quirk; there really was a bartender named Bruno Schulz in Lazarus's story. It was one of those things I found when I was researching, one of those signals that I should be writing this story.

Jill: How do you feel your writing has changed over the years?

Hemon: I used to be more impatient. That is how I describe it to myself. I am more patient now. With the first two books, it was easier for me to imagine that I would never write or publish a book again. Now I have been doing it for awhile.

This book required — not exactly a different kind of writing, but I knew I could not break it up into units that I could write and complete discretely. I had to finish the book to see if it worked. The sum of parts would not have necessarily fulfilled my purposes. My first two books were the sum of their parts: a book of stories, and then the fragments and stories in Nowhere Man. I had to be patient and keep at this book, and not get too frustrated when I couldn't see the end or didn't really know where I was going.

I did have to write stories while I was writing The Lazarus Project. I wrote a book of stories during the same time, which will be coming out next year. As improved as my patience may have become, it wasn't perfect, so I had to see something finished and published, and I would write a story every once in awhile. If I learned anything writing The Lazarus Project, it is to take my time, to wait for things to come to me rather than to push through them.

Jill: I've read that you intended to stay in America for only a few months, and then the war started. Why were you coming to Chicago in the first place?

Hemon: I used to be a young journalist, and there was a program run by the United States Information Agency, which is now defunct, I think. It was a cultural exchange agency that used to run American cultural centers around the world, which I don't think exist any more. They had a program where they invited people from Bosnia, including young journalists, for a month-long visit at their expense. I was invited, and I came and travelled for a month, as part of the program. Then I stayed over with some friends in Canada and a friend in Chicago, and when I was in Chicago visiting my friend, the war broke out, and I stayed.

Jill: Your characters have held interesting, and sometimes bizarre, jobs. I was curious: what's one of the strangest work experiences you've had?

Hemon: I think canvassing, which I did for Greenpeace, was the weirdest. I can't believe I did it. I can't believe I thought I could do it. But somehow I did, for two and half years.

Jill: I've had friends who haven't lasted two and a half weeks canvassing.

Hemon: I know. I was desperate at that point. It burns you really badly. But desperation is a great ally. It was the first legal job I got, though, so I would not quit. I tend not to quit, sometimes. I got the job, then I held onto it, and it was only when I found some other means of sustenance that I quit.

In retrospect, it was a stroke of good luck. I learned a lot of English, and learned not to be self-conscious while talking, because I was meeting a lot of people every day and talking to them. It was a crash course in the American middle class, from lower middle class to upper, upper middle class. I met them all and talked to them, all kinds of people, from psychopaths to the kindest people you will ever meet. People with guns, and people who would invite me into their houses and sit me down and offer me food, the nicest people. Crazy people, Jesus freaks, whatnot. The whole shebang, I've seen it all.

Jill: Did you or do you play music? The band sections in Nowhere Man are quite funny, and ring true.

Hemon: I used to have a band, and when I was writing poetry, nobody would read it or publish it, and I thought I could turn it into lyrics. I always liked music, so I had a band. In fact, the photographer, my friend that I went to Eastern Europe with, was in the band too. We've done a few things together.

But I wasn't good at it, so I just turned to writing full-time. Before I came to the United States, I sold my guitar so that I could have money here, which I quickly spent. I've never picked it up again; I haven't played guitar since.

Jill: What are you reading these days?

Hemon: Right now I'm reading Howard's End, for whatever reason, and before that I read Divisadero, by Ontaatje, which I loved. Before that I reread The Hakawati — I had read it in manuscript — and before that, I can't remember.

I spoke with Aleksandar Hemon on the phone on May 14, 2008.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Question of Bruno
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. Nowhere Man Used Trade Paper $8.00

  3. An Accidental Anarchist: How the... Used Trade Paper $9.00
  4. The Lazarus Project
    Used Hardcover $6.95

  5. Howards End (Penguin Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $7.00
  6. Divisadero (Vintage International)
    Used Trade Paper $3.95

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