Monday, March 1, 2010

Fiction Mondays: the Lazarus Project

Last week, I finished reading Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project," and it was one of those books that took a few days to really assemble my thoughts about. I really liked it, and the ending was much different than I expected. It was different in a good way, though--anything else might have seemed forced, an attempt to get the two storylines to resolve in a way that wouldn't have felt so organic.

The novel is a story of two immigrants who move from Eastern Europe to Chicago, one at the turn of the 20th century and one almost a century later. Lazarus, who came to America after the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, is killed by the chief of the Chicago police, and the event sets off an anti-anarchist wave through the city (and possibly through the country). While there is no evidence that Lazarus was carrying out an assassination attempt on behalf of the anarchist cause, police statements and a newspaper writer named Miller escalate the fear of foreigners, while the later disappearance of Lazarus' body leaves many Christians convinced that the second coming of Christ will soon occur. In the middle of this cultural and religious upheaval, Lazarus' sister Olga tries to navigate her grief and the political factions trying to use Lazarus' death for their own gain.

100 years later, Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian writer, begins to research for a book about Lazarus. He and his friend Rora, a war photographer who escaped Sarajevo during the seige, return to Eastern Europe and begin to follow the trail that they hope will lead to Lazarus' origins. There are odd connections along the way--a corrupt journalist that Rora knew during the war has the same last name as the journalist writing about Lazarus--but more important are the connections between Lazarus and Brik. Although their stories are far different, they have both experienced the disappointment of immigrants who find themselves working miserable jobs to get by. They feel cheated by the promise of America. Even though Brik has married an American woman and settled (somewhat) into his American life, he still feels a deep connection to his roots. This feeling only grows the further he and Rora get into their journey. In a cemetery where several of Lazarus' relatives are buried, Brik has a full panic attack as he realizes his similarities to Lazarus.

In a book with simultaneous plotlines, sometimes you expect that miraculous connection--someone from Lazarus' story in connection to an ancestor of Brik's, or a moment that cannot just be coincidence. But Hemon resists this kind of easy out, and it makes the book even better. The connections are somehow deeper because they resonate thematically rather than literally. Like I said before, it's a book that took me a few days to really puzzle through, to collect my impressions of it and to write this post, and I love when a book does that.

It's kind of amazing that Hemon has only been writing in English for about 15 years, and there's something in the language of the book that suggests it isn't his first language. Some of the sentences seem like he's looking at the words through new eyes, and I guess this is even more thematic connection to Brik and Lazarus. Brik even teaches English as a second language. Here is my favorite sentence of the book: "Whereupon a gigantic Toyota Cherokee, or Toyota Apache, or Toyota Some Other Exterminated People, drove up on the pavement, the tinted windows throbbing with concussive fuck-music." I think I re-read that sentence three times in a row. It just struck me as a great bit of observation that somehow tied to the pogroms and cheap criminals through the book. This book definitely made me want to read more of Hemon's work, and I highly recommend it.

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