2008 Fiction Finalist The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon

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.

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