Although it seems literary journalists tell it every time they mention the name Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-American writer’s life story is so essential to appreciating his work that it bears repeating. Hemon grew up in Sarajevo in the 1970s and 1980s and was gaining a reputation as a promising young writer when, in the spring of 1992, he flew to Chicago as part of a cultural exchange program and was subsequently stranded there by Bosnia’s sudden absorption into the Yugoslav civil conflict.
Possessing only rudimentary English at the start of his exile, Hemon took on a collection of odd jobs while diligently studying American literature and in just a short time learned the language well enough to have his fiction published in The New Yorker and the Paris Review. In 2000 he published a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno, to wide acclaim. The novelish Nowhere Man, similarly lauded, followed in 2002. The ebullient comparisons to fellow linguistic phenomena Conrad and Nabakov may sound a bit premature, but there are certainly traces of the former’s pessimisms and the latter’s stylistic flourishes evident in Hemon’s work.
Stressing Hemon’s background is usually step one for so many reviewers because the author himself seems unable to get over his unique circumstances circa 1992. Each of his books, including his most recent novel The Lazarus Project, is principally concerned with a Sarajevan who finds himself imprisoned in the sheeny, end-of-history America of the 1990s while his hometown is shelled and sniperfire-riddled, his friends and relatives murdered, his favorite haunts blown apart.
Mirroring the experience of Hemon himself, these characters stumble through minimum-wage occupations such as sandwich-maker and political-canvasser and endure awkward relationships with cheerful American peers who fail to understand the complexity of the Bosnian conflict or do very much to relate to the emotional trauma of being a refugee. This inevitably leads to conflicts and misunderstandings. “Correct this!” shouts Josef Pronek, the titular Beatles-cover crooner of Nowhere Man, while throwing a copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot at an American girlfriend who constantly corrects his English language mistakes, a moment emblematic both of the strain Hemon’s characters toil under and of the black humor the author uses to illuminate them.
In addition to biographical reflections, there is a strain of historical rumination prevalent in Hemon’s work: the final section in Nowhere Man is devoted to recounting the absurd exploits of a Russian double agent gallivanting through Asia in the first half of the 20th century, and stories in The Question of Bruno include explorations of anti-Stalinist spies and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Hemon displays a deft touch with such potentially heavy subject matters, recalling the fun Donald Barthelme has had with stodgy personages like Goethe and medieval monks.
The Lazarus Project is a fitting amalgamation of Hemon’s thematic preoccupations since it concerns the efforts of a Hemon-like character to understand the mysterious murder of a Ukrainian immigrant in Chicago, 1908. The book alternates between two narratives: the first follows the aftermath of Lazarus Averbach’s death at the hands of the Chicago Chief of Police, an actual historic event imaginatively and passionately reconstructed by Hemon, and the second involves a Bosnian-American writer named Vladimir Brik attempting to research Lazarus’s story by undertaking a journey through Eastern Europe visiting the landmarks of his subject’s pre-immigration existence.
The descriptions of the travails of Lazarus’s sister Olga through a metropolis aflame with exaggerated fears of anarchist plots and anti-Semitic propaganda are surely meant to mimic the nativist fervor in parts of America during the months after September 11. Hemon is at his best in these sections, recreating a world of crooked policemen, shrill newspapermen, resilient outsiders, and Olga, determined to give her martyred brother proper burial rites, emerges as a most memorable heroine.
Pity, then, that the contemporary passages in The Lazarus Project take up nearly twice as many pages as the historical sections, and the two strands fail to coalesce satisfactorily. Too often does the novel feel like a headier reworking of Everything is Illuminated, with the travelogue lacking the necessary portions of humor and adventure, and the effects of the historical flashbacks dampened by brevity. Unfortunately there is little in these sections to invest the reader. The principal difficulty with the entire book, though, is the narrator Brik, who never becomes more than an aimless sulker, resentful that he missed a war that could have given him something to write about, desperate to seek out some kind of momentous experience in the old world but not willful enough to do anything about it.
It is clear that Brik’s marriage to an American surgeon named Mary is floundering, and his trip provides an opportunity to escape. But most of the conflict between Brik and his wife occurs within Brik’s own mind, which seems increasingly warped. He may claim to be disgusted by Mary’s Reaganesque optimism, “her high position of surgically American decency” from which she can frown up his unemployable existential meanderings, but Brik is actually plagued by his own “orgasmic selfishness,” which he hopes will be excused by the publication of a serious work about a tragic historical episode. “The righteous processes of self-doubt and self-realization” is purchasable, Brik admits, recasting his entire trip not as a search for meaning but as a search for moral currency.
The road Brik and his Bosnian companion Rora travel from Lviv, Ukraine, to Sarajevo serves as a path not to hope or such transparently unattainable chimeras as “self-realization”, but only to deeper cynicism. In between hearing Rora’s anecdotes about life in wartorn Sarajevo and ogling at women in cafes, Brik ponders Lazarus’s own journey and makes comparisons to his own life that only further stress the frustrating discrepancy between them.
In the chapter succeeding the one in which the tireless Olga recounts the horror of living through a turn-of-the-century pogrom, a stunningly brutal passage that single-handedly makes The Lazarus Project worth reading even as it simultaneously exposes the patent weaknesses of the rest of the book, Brik and Rora catch a cab ride to Budapest along with a young woman they fear is being sold into the slave trade. In a rare moment of suspense, Rora leads Brik into a confrontation with the driver-cum-kidnapper in order to rescue the girl. Yet Brik does nothing until Rora has already beat the pimp onto the bathroom floor and taken his car keys, at which point the “heroic” Brik commences walloping the downed man with all the enraged egotism as seen on a police brutality spree on an Internet video.
With its unflinching portraits of American hypocrisy and the harsh truths of warfare, The Lazarus Project is the sort of novel that is difficult to forget. One must wonder, though, whether the chore of pushing through Hemon’s bleak and often frustrating landscape is worth the empty rewards he offers.