The Lazarus Project

The Lazarus who lends his name to the title of Aleksandar Hemon?s third work of fiction was killed as a young man and mourned by his sister. And yes, this Lazarus did sort of rise weeks after his death (in a gruesome sense) and maintained an afterlife a century later as the inspiration for this novel. But don?t expect reverence or piety. Narrated by an avowed atheist who refers to a certain historical figure as “Mr. Christ” and “the crucified gymnast,” Hemon delivers a fractured, furiously comic tale about the capacity for xenophobia to resurrect itself across multiple continents throughout the 20th century by people who believe they have divine permission to do so.

The man with the biblically resonant name was Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish survivor of the Eastern European pogroms. On March 2, 1908, he appeared on the doorstep of George Shippy, then the Chicago chief of police, and handed him an envelope. What was in the envelope is not known. But what is known is that within minutes Lazarus — who appeared to Shippy to be a Sicilian or a Jew, surely an anarchist — was attacked by Shippy, his young son, and his driver and shot dead in the parlor by seven bullets.

Identifying an anarchist in 1908, it turns out, has little to do with establishing a man?s political affiliations and former whereabouts. This being the heyday of phrenology and eugenics, the detectives are more concerned with finding clues in the corpse itself. Averbuch?s good hygiene is taken as a sign of his ill intentions (“It is not customary for men of that class to take good care of their persons. It looks like he didn?t expect to come back.”); his Jewish ethnicity is finally confirmed by a thorough examination of his crotch. In the final indignity, his body is put on public display, and the detectives begin rounding up suspects, identified by skin tone, facial features, and hair texture, whom they then put in stress positions (in the case of Lazurus? sister, Olga) and beat mercilessly (in the case of his next-door neighbor, who dies from his injuries).

It?s not hard then, to see what might tempt a young artist to find parallels between the anarchist scare of the early part of the century and the war on terror in post-9/11 America. Enter Vladimir Brik, a young Bosnian-American writer suffering a curious kind of emasculated boredom in 21st-century Chicago. Although he writes a newspaper column meant to explain his former country to Americans, Brik is more or less supported by his Irish-Catholic brain surgeon wife. And though his status as a former citizen of Bosnia gives him survivor?s cred amongst Americans, he, like Hemon, left the country in 1992 and witnessed little of the war itself. This, he feels, gives him second-class status when he encounters Bosnians who did live out the war, as we find out when he encounters his former high school friend Ahmed Rora at a party:

I knew from experience that if I — I who had left just before the beginning and missed the whole shebang — were to ask a Bosnian about the war, my question could easily lead to a lengthy monologue about the horrors of war and my inability to understand what it was really like. I was self-trained to avoid falling into that situation, but this time I asked:

Were you in Sarajevo for the whole siege?

No, he said. Just for the best parts.

This meeting inspires Brik to apply for a small writing grant (obtained through flirting with the 70-something wife of a local philanthropist who, coincidentally or not, shares a last name with the assistant investigator on the Averbuch case) to journey to Eastern Europe, ostensibly to retrace Lazarus? steps back to his hometown. He convinces Rora, a photographer, to accompany him. For the rest of the novel, Hemon alternates chapters re-imagining the story of Lazarus with sections tracing Brik and Rora’s journey through Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and finally Bosnia.

Here we get Hemon at his tragicomic best: His descriptive eye lurches between the absurdity of Ukrainian Madonna karaoke singers, Orthodox Darth Vader impersonators, a businessman “with a tenderloin breaking out of his tight jeans,” and a young girl “in a short, glittery skirt utterly unbefitting the idyllic catastrophe of village.” The narrative tension between humor and horror becomes especially keen as Rora unspools his own stories about his apprenticeship to a Bosnian warlord dubbed Rambo, whose theatrical means of dispatching with his enemies suggest he fancied himself the star in a Hollywood version of his life. Rora, a charmer — “in my country, charmers used to be as endemic as landmines are now,” Brik tells us — seems to milk these tales for their entertainment value, though as they get closer to their former homeland, it becomes clear that even telling them may have real-world consequences for both men.

As the trip progresses, from the city in modern-day Moldova where Lazarus barely survived the pogroms towards Bosnia, the site of mass murders nearly a century later, Brik — and the reader — struggle for a way to account for nothing less than a working theory of mass murder, torture and genocide. Are these the acts of people whose good intentions go awry? Or do atrocities exist precisely because those who commit them convince themselves that they are acting on their own best intentions? To illustrate these two views of history Brik recalls an argument he had with his wife over the photos taken at Abu Ghraib. Mary, who as a surgeon has her own private view of death, sees “essentially decent American kids acting upon a misguided belief they were protecting freedom.” Brik, instead, sees “young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else?s life and death” — then goes on a rant, smashing dishes and railing against “the land of the fucking free and the home of the asshole brave” and tells her she is “no different than those angelic American kids who plug curly-haired people into an electric current after a relaxing water-boarding session.” In a phrase that bodes ill for more than just his marriage, he tells us, “the baggage I dragged around the Eastern lands contained the tortured corpses of our good intentions.”

The novel includes photographs documenting the Lazarus case procured from the Chicago Historical Society, as well as photographs of Eastern Europe taken by Hemon?s best friend, Velibor Bozovic, on a trip the two took in 2004, partially funded with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. After reading this novel, the images that seem most innocent are the most unsettling. One, of a terrier, opens a chapter that ends with a drunken couple torturing an animal for their own amusement. The other depicts the elegant foyer of an overstuffed Victorian living room. It?s Shippy?s, of course, where soon a puddle of blood will spread “like an obscure ocean on the light maple floor.” But it?s also reminiscent of the cozy, bourgeois safety of the Averbuchs? living room (as Hemon describes it) — family gathered round, kasha on the stove — right before their former friends and neighbors break through the door with the intent to slaughter them. One might also imagine a similar scene, played out over and over again in modern Sarajevo living rooms throughout the 1990s. Hemon, like Brik, may not have been there to bear direct witness. But he resurrects the horror in his prose with the awful ring of truth.