Uprisings from the Past

The Lazarus Project BY Aleksandar Hemon. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 304 pages. $24.

The cover of The Lazarus Project

Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project opens in Chicago in 1908, when a young Jewish immigrant called Lazarus Averbuch, an alleged anarchist and follower of Emma Goldman, enters the home of the chief of police and is shot dead. The narrator is Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian-American writer, and the spine of the story is his quest, almost a hundred years later, to unearth the truth about the death of Averbuch.

But truth is relentlessly problematic in Hemon’s work. His first book, a collection called The Question of Bruno (2000), concludes with the story “Imitation of Life.” Its subject, one to which Hemon often returns with a kind of sardonic nostalgia, is childhood in Sarajevo. At the end of the tale, the narrator remembers as a boy awakening one morning and seeing flags with swastikas flapping outside his window. He leaves the apartment and finds German soldiers in bloody bandages lying on the railroad tracks, and above them, revolving on ropes, hanged men and women. This is no dream; true to the story’s Sirkian title, a film is being shot in the train station near the boy’s home. The last sentence is perfect: “They took down the hanged man above my head, he twisted his head, first left, then right, stretched his arms, as if imitating an ascending airplane, and then dissolved into the mass.”

The hanged man is, of course, a movie extra, and this return to “life” is an early expression of the resurrection theme that will be developed extensively in the new novel. In another story in The Question of Bruno, “The Sorge Spy Ring,” a different Sarajevan boy reads accounts of the famous Soviet agent Richard Sorge (the man who discovered Hitler’s plans to attack Russia in 1941 but was ignored by Stalin) and starts to suspect that his own father is a spy. What Hemon does with this relatively straightforward premise is baroque. While the boy’s investigation into his father’s espionage proceeds, footnotes tell the story of the real spy, and in Nabokovian fashion, these soon threaten to overwhelm the main text itself, while at the same time growing ever more wayward and fanciful. So we are told, for example, that the composition of Sorge’s most important book, Marxism and Love, was fueled by his desire for the wife of his university teacher. And that some of his articles, such as “Anal Sex and Revolution,” influenced Wilhelm Reich. Soon the story turns into a litany of the boy’s father’s stories, as meanwhile, in the footnotes, Herr Aleksandar Hemon appears as a researcher at the German Foreign Office Archives, claiming that the Sorge who showed up in Frankfurt in 1925 was “not the Soviet spy who was working in Tokyo and on mysterious missions abroad, but someone else, of whom we know nothing.”

What is going on here? Soviet history bumps up against reflexive postmodernist literary technique, old photographs appear on the page as in W. G. Sebald’s books, characters’ names recur in impossibly diverse places, other writers’ inventions are shamelessly appropriated, and the lines between history, memory, reality, and imagination are not merely blurred but swept entirely away. And yet what Hemon achieves is not just very funny but, paradoxically, intensely personal and serious. It is heady stuff.

His second book, and first novel, Nowhere Man (2002), is more sober than The Question of Bruno, though with regard to Hemon’s work, sober is a relative term. The narrator of the first section, as in The Lazarus Project, is a young Bosnian American living in Chicago in 1994. While applying for a job teaching English, he encounters a figure from his Sarajevo boyhood, Jozef Pronek. Much of the novel concerns Pronek’s days in Ukraine prior to the arrest of Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Mysteriously, and somewhat arbitrarily, Hemon concludes with a long account of a decadent Russian criminal called Captain Pick. Active in the Far East in the ’30s and ’40s, Pick ran an espionage ring whose members included a hit man named Alex Hemmon. Pick’s connection to Pronek is unclear, other than Pronek’s having used that name while selling “bonds of nonexistent foreign countries to a few seducible French mademoiselles and greedy English ladies,” for which he went to prison. The novel doesn’t quite work—there is a groping for a coherence that ultimately eludes the author—but it is important as a transitional step from the giddy glories of The Question of Bruno to the major achievement that is The Lazarus Project.

Here, Hemon finds a story big enough to contain and structure his extensive repertoire of fiercely held obsessions, which include, in no particular order, Bosnia, America, identity, history, young men’s friendships, death, resurrection, the nature of evil, storytelling, the impossibility of truth, the siege of Sarajevo, old photographs, the absence of God, violence, war, fraud, and espionage. Brik, our narrator, is so eager to make his name as a writer—and, incidentally, to break his financial dependence on his American wife, a neurosurgeon—that he finagles a grant and sets off to Lviv, in Ukraine, where he intends to begin his research on Lazarus Averbuch, the man shot to death on suspicion of anarchism in 1908. He is accompanied by a fellow Bosnian, now also resident in Chicago, a photographer called Rora.

Rora is a fine creation. Unlike Brik, he was present during much of Sarajevo’s long siege in the Bosnian war of the early ’90s. As the two young men cross from Ukraine into Moldova, much of what Brik hears from Rora about that war finds echoes in what he’s learning about the pogroms in the region when Averbuch was a youth; which is reflected, in turn, in the anti-Semitism in the US in that same period, when anarchists (both real and so-called) in the Jewish ghetto tenements were denounced as dangerous enemies of democracy—“scrawny, mustached, consumptuous, damp-clothed, enraged men, reeking of vinegar and revolution.” In Brik’s wry telling, such thinking is echoed in the demonization of Muslims in the US in the wake of 9/11.

These echoes create a layered density and arouse a sense of interconnectedness among the novel’s story lines. Embedded within this structure, in fact inscribed in its very DNA, is the idea of resurrectioncentral, of course, to the story of the biblical Lazarus, as well as to that of the historical figure Brik refers to throughout as Mr. Christ. Here is Rora telling Brik about the tunnel through which people passed into and out of Sarajevo during the siege: “It was like descending into hell, and it smelled just like it: clay, sweat, fear, farts, aftershave. You stumbled and touched the cold, earthen walls, you were in a grave and a corpse could grab you and pull you deeper into the earth . . . and then you were out into what looked like all the lights of the world ablaze at once. I’ve read about the people who died but then came back. They described it as passing through a tunnel. Well, the tunnel they passed through was under the tarmac of the Sarajevo airport.”

This is an extraordinary passage, and it acquires greater resonance still in the aftermath of Averbuch’s shooting. That strand of the novel is dominated by the dead man’s sister, Olga, a proud, defiant young woman who suffers intense grief and humiliation in the wake of her brother’s death, for her pain is compounded by uncertainties regarding not merely the whereabouts of his corpse but also the rumor that, like those emerging from the tunnel into the light, he may in fact have risen from the dead. Hemon has rarely written with more heart than when depicting Olga’s suffering, and her troubles only compound when she becomes involved in the predicament of her brother’s friend Isador Maron. In Chicago, a city that is starting to panic at the false threat of an anarchist uprising, poor Isador is now wanted by the police as Lazarus’s accomplice.

Hemon resolves Olga’s story with enormous aplomb, as meanwhile, Brik and Rora make their way south and west from Ukraine into Moldova and then Romania and Bosnia. The region’s dark and bloody past is brought into focus at every step, and there grows in the reader a grim sense of the hatred that still hangs over Europe and has yet to play itself out, as Rora’s experience in Sarajevo attests.

Brik is a naturalized American, but Hemon is far too sophisticated to suggest that the US represents an antidote or corrective to so much corrupt history. “What I like about America,” says the ironic Brik, “is that there is no space left for useless metaphysical questions.” Brik’s wife, Mary, the neurosurgeon—“her hands up to their wrists in somebody else’s mind”— cannot begin to understand the tortuous workings of her own husband’s mind. “She just could not comprehend evil. . . . For her, the prime mover of every action was a good intention.” He reports that during a row about Abu Ghraib, he grew so enraged with her naïveté that he smashed every piece of china in the apartment.

The Lazarus Project is the fearless and spirited expression of a turbulent literary talent and, at the same time, a cold, fierce blast of moral outrage. For all Hemon’s nods to other writers—one catches glimpses not only of Nabokov and Sebald but of Bulgakov, Pamuk, Amis, Poe—he is entirely his own man, an original who owes no debts to anyone.

Patrick McGrath’s novel Trauma has just been published by Knopf.