Monday, December 3, 2012

Telling Stories: Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project"

I've read very little of Aleksandar Hemon's writing, so I was excited when my book club voted for The Lazarus Project last month. His books have been on my list for quite some time, and aside from a short story (or two?) and a handful of essays, my fascination with him is limited to the scattered readings and his history of living in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, a five minute walk from where I grew up and live now. His reputation has been equally fascinating, leading to his being the rare writer whom I knew I wanted to read, but whom I knew precious little about, stylistically. I didn't know what to expect from his full-length books, and unless his other pieces are even more varied, The Lazarus Project proved to be a dizzying mix of genres, voices, images and intentionally questionable narratives. But these combinations (and said dizziness) are not meant to be synonyms for "confusing." Upon completion of the novel, I was struck by how the narrative was so straightforward, jumping consistently from past to present, from fictional imaginings of real events to fictional depictions of fictional characters. The complexity lays in Hemon's themes: there's really no way to pinpoint an exact tone or message in The Lazarus Project, but rather, the reader sits back and is overcome by the variety of what the text accomplishes.

The novels tells two intertwined stories, one of them a compelling, ugly piece from Chicago's early twentieth-century history. In 1908, for still unknown reasons, a young Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch paid a visit to the home of Chicago's chief of police; not long after arriving, he was dead from multiple gunshot wounds, and the police and media were quick to paint a lurid picture of a violent anarchist with ties to Emma Goldman eager to commit a crime against the law:

"Neither does Assistant Chief find it insignificant that the anarchist has been meticulously shaved, probably that very same morning, and that his hair was carefully cut. His clothes are musty and worn, but he doesn't exude any stench; the man has without a doubt taken a bath recently. It is not customary with alien men of that class to take care of their persons, Assistant Chief tells William P. Miller. It looks as though he didn't expect to come back alive. 'He looks like a Jew to me," Chief Shippy says, as Foley is tearing the end of the bandage with his teeth to tie it up. Assistant Chief unbuttons the man's pants, pulls them down, then does the same with his long underwear; in doing so, he slips on the blood and brains, nearly falling on the body, but quickly regains his balance.

'He's a Jew all right,' he announces, leaning over the young man's crotch. 'A Jew is what he is (Hemon 26-27).'"

Lazarus's sister Olga knows he's not an anarchist, and sets out to attempt to clear his name. However, this proves to be a daunting challenge: she's struggling with poverty and is malnourished and has to deal with authority figures who sneer at her for being an immigrant woman, not to mention a sibling of a "dangerous anarchist." She remains undaunted, even as her brother's name is smeared and his body desecrated (the photo below appears in the book and is an actual photo of Lazarus Averbuch's body following his killing):

"Oblivious to the surroundings, she walks slowly. She moves quietly between the detectives, her dress too sweat-damp to rustle. It is only when they open the door of the room that she begins to hold back. Men are gathered around the chair where Lazarus sits, and she is relieved to see he is alive. She sighs and grips Fitzpatrick's forearm. But one of the men is holding Lazarus's head; her brother's eyes are closed, his face ashen; her heart stops, frozen. Fitzgerald urges her on; Fitzpatrick says, as if delivering a punch line: 'Happy to see him? Give him a kiss...' The crowd titters, transfixed by Olga's stepping toward Lazarus, as if she were mounted on cothurni: a short, reluctant step back, then two awkward steps forward to touch his lifeless cheek, whereupon she collapses, unconscious. The crowd gasps (Hemon 57)."

The second story is about Brik, a Bosnian writer living in Chicago. He's married to a surgeon, and their marriage alternates between blissful love and heated, violent confrontations. He becomes fascinated with the story of Lazarus Averbuch, and upon receiving a literary grant, he decides to travel to Eastern Europe to chart and track the Averbuch line and to see how the contemporary homeland reflects the early twentieth-century immigrant experience. He teams up with Rora, a fast-talking photographer who also hails from Sarajevo, with the hopes of having him document their trip. Brik and Rora become an uneasy odd couple, balancing between their natural alliance as men from the same land (and travelers on a sometimes dangerous trip) and their occasional but mounting friction. Rora is an avid storyteller, creating grand, embellished tales of war and travels. He is consistently annoyed with Brik's questions and conversations. Brik, despite his personal faults and boorish behavior toward his wife, is naturally observant, gleaning philosophical and sociological details and hypotheses from the most casual surroundings. Hemon's writing is excellent in these details, and is continual marked by moments of unexpected (and dark) humor, and the passage below ends with one of my favorite lines from the book:

"One morning in Chicago I had tiptoed to the kitchen with the intention of making some coffee. While customarily spilling coffee grounds all over the counter, I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES. It was too late for recovery, for sadness was now the dark matter in the universe of still objects around me: the salt and pepper shakers; the honey jar; the bag of sun-dried tomatoes; the blunt knife; a desiccated loaf of bread; the two coffee cups, waiting. My country's main exports are stolen cars and sadness (Hemon 73)."

As these two story lines alternate, the reader is presented with a myriad of themes--the obvious ones are how the immigrant experience in the United States has changed and remained the same, especially regarding the notion of terrorists and anarchists (substitute Muslims today with Eastern Europeans then); traveling as both a physical journey and an existential one. But what stayed with me the idea of storytelling. This might seem like such a simple, obvious idea, but Hemon crafts various avenues of storytelling, from the historical to the contemporary, but also with a balance between fictional and autobiographical. The little I know about his personal life and history in Chicago is reflected in careful detail via Brik: the mentions of Chicago's Edgewater, Andersonville, and Uptown neighborhoods; the Bosnian angle; and the fact that Brik is a writer who has received a substantial grant. I'm not suggesting that Brik is the complete personification of Hemon, but there's enough there to make the reader wonder how much Hemon has pulled and crafted from his own life, especially when the fictionalized stories of Lazarus and Olga are based on real people as well.

Within the stories lie what I feel is the biggest focus of The Lazarus Project: the art and complications of storytelling. There's never a moment or happening within the text that can't stand alone as its own tale or isn't part of a bigger one. Rora, for example, is meant to be a foil for Brik as well as a source of comic relief. However, his character is constantly telling stories, and after while, these mini-narratives become their own part of the plot:

"These people, these gangsters, Rora said, they are the same wherever you go--the same smirk, the same cell phone, the same goon. There used to be a guy named Pseto, a big gangster in Sarajevo just before the war. His business was racketeering. He ran a crew, including a few cops, who would break up a vendor if he did not pay for protection. He had a jewelry shop for money laundering, and sometimes he wore half of his inventory: diamonds and gold all over. He walked down Ferhadija Street with that Sarajevo-street-thug strut, and people would part reverentially. (I could see him: throwing his shoulders and jerking his neck, pursing his lips, the mouth half open to show that he was halfway to being very pissed) He would walk into a bar and the owner would have to buy drinks for everybody present, as though Pseto were the king. As his headquarters, he used a cafe called Djul-basta (I knew exactly where it stood); the owner was blessed with his protection but had no customers other than the people who came to do business with Pseto. He had trained the owner to bring him a short espresso every half an hour by the clock, and he would sit there, drinking coffee all day. Once he made a disobedient cop suck his cock. And when a stupid journalist wrote about the collusion of the police and Pseto, he had sent goons to bring the fool and had him tied to the tree in front of the cafe. He put a gun at the journalist's temple and told him to bark, so he barked. And he barked all day, was fed pizza leftovers, and had to fetch a stick (Hemon 131-132)."

As Olga processes the story of Lazarus's murder, she does her own painful storytelling. She keeps mentally crafting letters to her mother to break the news of the killing. These drafts are always brief, yet constantly switch in tone and climax as she goes about her investigations.

"Dear Mother,
You will think me cruel and mad, but I cannot keep this inside me anymore. Lazarus has been slain like an animal for no reason at all yet they call him an assassin. He--an assassin. There is no end to evil, it reaches us here too (Hemon 169)."

"Dear Mother,
Lazarus's funeral was beautiful. The rebbe spoke of his kindness, and there were hundreds of his friends, mountains of flowers (Hemon 148)."

The photographs that break up each chapter add their own layers to the narrative. Some of them, like the one of Lazarus above, are real photos from old newspapers. Others are meant to be Rora's photos as he helps document his travels with Brik. Some of these are beautiful landscape shots; others are random snapshots of people related or unrelated to the corresponding text. However, there's a definite subtlety to these images, even if they are jarring and uncomfortable. For as meticulous as Hemon is in his fiction, the idea of imagery and photography are vital to the stories, and therefore the photos become necessary as well as aesthetic. They make The Lazarus Project feel like a sort of time capsule. The early murder is its own historical document, and the travels of Brik and Rora feel like recordings for their own future prosperity. After awhile, the reader is no longer awaiting closure to the events of Lazarus, Olga, Brik, and Rora--the stories unfold into themselves as present-tense happenings, as if we're seeing two events becoming part of one long strain. There's never really a question of reliability--Brik is so open about his own faults and shortcomings that the reader focuses on experiencing the mysteries as they unfold. Also, the blatant lies of the police in covering up Lazarus's murder are the only truly unreliable narrations, but those are expected and obvious.

This is one of the more memorable, expertly crafted novels I've read this year. I found myself inserting Hemon into Brik's stories, and I somehow get the feeling that, personally, Hemon suffers from his own outbursts and unsavory tendencies. But going strictly by the novel, I'm still amazed at how much complexity he wrings from what is otherwise a very simple collection of tales. He writes with emotion without going for obvious sentimentality. During our book club meeting, I expressed the critique that Hemon piled too much misfortune on Olga, getting to the point that it seemed too much to handle. A fellow participant made an excellent point that rendered my criticism false--in history, the Jewish experience has been that way for some people: sometimes there's so much strife and pain without a "happy ending." Hemon's mix of themes, plots, and philosophy were extremely well done, and I'm happy not only that I've finally read one of his long-form works, but that it was this one. It's storytelling both big and small, and a constant stream of information and history that keeps one constantly deep in thought. I very much look forward to reading his other novels and stories, and I plan to tackle these (hopefully) sooner rather than later in 2013.

Work Cited:
Hemon, Aleksandar. The Lazarus Project. Copyright 2008 by Aleksandar Hemon.

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