In the fiction of Aleksandar Hemon, the dramatic tension lies not within one story but between competing stories. There is always a bigger story, properly called history, and a smaller one, the personal story of a protagonist who is usually a fragmented reflection of Hemon himself. The bigger story usually concerns large-scale atrocities fueled by irrational hatred: memories of genocide, pogroms, and war haunt his characters. The smaller, more personal stories are candles flickering in history’s storm.
In his two previous books—the short-story collection The Question of Bruno and the novel Nowhere Man—Hemon approaches this tension obliquely. The first Bruno story, “Islands,” includes a scene where the main character, a small child, listens to memories of Soviet terror related by his old Uncle Julius, who says, “We live and live, and in the end we’re just like this boy...knowing nothing, remembering nothing.” Another story, “The Sorge Spy Ring,” consists of a child’s reimagining of his parents’ personal histories, their pasts embellished in his mind with tales of espionage. The biography of the infamous Soviet spy Richard Sorge is simultaneously told in a succession of footnotes that take up about half of each page. The child’s construction and the spy’s biography compete for the reader’s attention, each seeming to argue for its own superior significance. In Nowhere Man, while secondary characters take note of newspaper headlines (“DEFENSES COLLAPSE IN GORAZDE”), the novel’s hero, a Bosnian rock musician named Jozef Pronek, has a funny encounter with the first President Bush, who tells him, “It’s all one big family, your country is. If there is misunderstanding, you oughtta work it out.”
Hemon is himself a Bosnian from Sarajevo. He left his country for the United States just before the siege of his native city began. Marooned in Chicago, he learned English and, within a decade, began publishing fiction. From the beginning, his work has reflected his feeling of guilt at having enjoyed the stupid luck of escaping from one of history’s recent fits.
The news about his latest novel, The Lazarus Project, is that Hemon has now become more explicit about the friction between personal hope and historical desolation. “If there are more dead than living, then the world is about death, and the question is: What are we to do with all the death? Who is going to remember all the dead?” The question is put by Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian-born American citizen of Ukrainian descent, who, like Jozef Pronek, bears a resemblance to Hemon himself. As a columnist for the Chicago Reader, Brik feels some status anxiety with relation to his wife, a neurosurgeon named Mary. Deciding to do something serious and important, he sets out to write a book about Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant who survived the Kishinev pogrom in present-day Moldova and eventually made his way to Chicago. On March 2, 1908, Averbuch was shot and killed, in what was thought to be self-defense, by the Chicago chief of police, who believed Averbuch was an anarchist assassin. The event soon galvanized the anti-immigrant hysteria already permeating Chicago.
Half of the chapters of The Lazarus Project are devoted to Averbuch’s story, mostly from the point of view of his surviving sister, Olga, a kind of modern-day Antigone who must struggle with the Chicago authorities to get a proper Jewish burial for her brother. In the other chapters, the reader follows Brik as he travels to the Ukraine and Bosnia to do research for his book with his friend Rora, a photographer. (The Lazarus Project is illustrated with photographs by Velibor Božovi.) In this second narrative, we also get new bits of information about Averbuch’s pre-American story—about the pogrom he escaped and his travels through Eastern Europe.
It’s easy to see why Hemon was attracted to Averbuch’s story. Averbuch is a casualty of history, a target of anti-Semitism both in Tsarist Russia and later in the United States. He was mourned by no one: not by the chief of police, who convinced himself he had done the right thing by killing Averbuch; not by the people of Chicago, who saw Averbuch as a representative of the anarchist movement and therefore a threat to law and order; and not even, finally, by the anarchists themselves, for whom Averbuch is merely a useful symbol in the struggle for revolution. Only the love of his family—Olga in particular—and of his best friend, Isador, seem real, until Brik comes to love Averbuch as he meditates on his life.
But much of the narrative tension in this novel does not involve Averbuch’s story. The stories that really compete with the story of Brik’s journey back to Eastern Europe are the ones he hears along the way about recent brutalities in Sarajevo. There is often a sense, in the chapters about Brik, that the reader has just missed the action. Too much of the novel feels reported, not told, as if The Lazarus Project were standing at a careful distance from its most important narrative material. Rora’s stories about the dirty dealings he was involved in during the Bosnian civil war and Brik’s accounts of his long, violent arguments with his wife take place against the exotic backdrop of various Ukrainian towns, which Hemon might have spent more time describing. The newspaper accounts of the Averbuch murder and its aftermath often seem more vivid than the story of Brik’s present-day experiences.
That said, some very important things do happen to Brik in the last few chapters of the book. Among them: Brik and Rora’s successful attempt to rescue a Bosnian prostitute from her pimp. Brik breaks his hand against the pimp’s jaw in a bathroom stall. He tells a nurse named Azra—who turns out to be Rora’s sister—that he doesn’t regret it, and that he wouldn’t mind breaking the kneecaps of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadžić, and that “there are a lot of jaws I would like to break” in America as well. Similarly, at the end of Nowhere Man, we saw Jozef Pronek throw a violent tantrum; Hemon seemed to be saying that the only way to answer the violence of history is to fight back. But in The Lazarus Project, Azra’s patience and care are a quiet counterexample to Brik’s rage, and as he finally starts writing his book about Averbuch, he must try to account not only for the obvious episodes of violence, injustice, and neglect, but also for the persistence of love.
Presumably, that book is The Lazarus Project. It will be interesting to see what follows it. Hemon the stylist has been widely celebrated, the importance of his themes duly recognized. But Hemon the storyteller is still figuring out what to do with stories like Averbuch’s, and with the tortured memories of people like Brik.
Related: Survivor Stories: The Bosnian Memory Project by Randall S. Rosenberg