by admin | Mar-10-2009
Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Geeta Sharma-Jensen discusses Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (Riverhead Books).
Aleksandar Hemon, who worked as a magazine writer in his native Sarajevo before arriving in the United States in 1992, once told a
Milwaukee newspaper that he was “never a good journalist.” “Unfortunately,” he explained, with a grin, “I had ... a compulsion to embellish.”
In The Lazarus Project Hemon’s compulsion to embellish reaches majestic heights. Here, he takes the reality of a forgotten immigrant’s life and turns it into unforgettable fiction that, in turn, exposes the historical truths of our national psyche. The result of this fact
mirroring fiction mirroring truth mirroring fiction is a stunning, inventive novel that firmly establishes Hemon’s place in American letters.
At the center of this fiction is a true story—that of nineteen-year-old immigrant Lazarus Averbuch, a survivor of a pogram in Eastern Europe who was gunned down by Chicago’s chief of police at the chief’s home. It was March 2, 1908. Lazarus had been in this new country of promise for seven months. A lot was written about the case, but the shooting remained mysterious. Police Chief George Shippy, who was never charged, characterized the teenager as an anarchist, a political assassin, but no such proof was found.
When Hemon learned of the story, he searched Chicago police and other files. He found pictures of a dead Averbuch propped in a chair, but never a real explanation for why the teenager was considered dangerous.
Deeply affected and unable to let go of this story, Hemon and a photographer friend, Velibor Bozovics, took off across Europe, retracing Lazarus’s life in an attempt to understand his death.
Those are the truths that quickly bleed into fiction in Hemon’s hands. In the novel, Hemon creates the fictional Vladimir Brik as his stand-in, and Rora fills in for Hemon’s real-life photographer pal. Young Lazarus, however, remains the historical Lazarus Averbuch, misunderstood, wretched, a symbol of Old World prejudices and cruelty as well as New World racism, fears, and discrimination against immigrants. Gaps in Lazarus’s history are filled in by Hemon’s fertile imagination.
The novel, then, proceeds on two tracks, one real, one fictional, one personal, the other universal, thrusting readers eventually into an ingeniously blended story whose effect is heightened by black-and-white photos from police files and by Bozovics.
In Brik, we have the wryly humorous, sensitive narrator who breathes life into Lazarus through his writing project. The author allows Brik a
“self-examining, pseudo-confessional form of narration.” But the overarching narration is epic, telling a bigger and sadder human story.
Hemon’s artistry lies in the fact that he pulls this off. It’s like watching a magician who deliberately lets his sleight of hand show. And it’s all good.
About the Critical Mass Blog
Commentary on literary criticism, publishing, writing, and all things NBCC related. It's written by independent members of the NBCC Board of Directors (see list of bloggers below).
Categories & Archives
- 30 Books |
- Adventures in E-Reading |
- Awards |
- 2007 Awards |
- 2008 Awards |
- 2011 Finalists: 30 Books in 30 Days |
- 2012 Finalists Interviewed at New School |
- 30 Books in 30 Days |
- Live announcement of NBCC Awards finalists |
- Critical Notes |
- 30 Books in 30 Days 2014 |
- 2014 Awards |
- 2013 Finalists Interviewed at New School |
- 30 Books in 30 Days 2013 |
- 2013 Awards |
- Podcasts |
- 2009 Awards |
- 2010 Awards |
- 2010 Finalists: 31 Books in 30 Days |
- 2011 Awards |
- Articles |
- Craft |
- Celebrating Philip Roth |
- Conversations with Literary Websites |
- Critical Library |
- Critical Outtakes: Discussions With Writers |
- Criticism |
- In Retrospect |
- Industry News |
- Interviews |
- NBCC 35th Anniversary |
- NBCC Campaign to Save Book Reviews |
- NBCC Featured Review |
- NBCC News |
- NBCC Reads |
- Roundups |
- Q&A |
- Remembrances |
- Small Press Spotlight |
- The Critical I: Conversations With Critics and Review Editors |
- The Next Decade in Book Culture |
- The Rest of the Best |
- Thinking About New Orleans: A Series About New Orleans Writers Post Katrina |
- Videos |
- What I'm Looking Forward to Reading