“The Lazarus Project” by Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead Books, 2008)

The MacArthur fellow Sasha Hemon’s latest novel is a profound, serene, and amusing journey into the minds of two European immigrants in Chicago, with almost a century between them. The novel works like a perfect pendulum clock, jumping back and forth between the story of a Jewish anarchist Lazarus Averbuch killed by the Chicago police in early twentieth century, and the early twenty-first century Bosnian columnist who tries to capitalize on his Lazarus research and find his own peace of mind (and maybe even the much-ridiculed meaning of life). Once again, the readers meet his figure of the nowhere man who is struggling to liberate himself from what he calls a “moral mediocrity” which prevents him from both “self-righteousness” and “orgasmic existence” with abandon.

The past (hi)story is intriguingly narrated in the present tense, as if the fictional reconstruction is more present, vivid and real, than the present-time of the Bosnian narrator. The past is dramatized with immense sense of certainty and realism, which was indeed the strongest genre of Lazarus’ era. The narrator plays with postmodern doubt of the distinction between story and history, truth and lie. The protagonist Brik is often unable to distinguish between dream and reality, his reseach/story and life he lives. A couple of times Hemon quite masterfully takes themes of history, memory, and truth to another level by dramatizing the Bosnian penchant for false stories about themselves. It is as if Hemon intereprets this penchant as an ontological quality of Bosnian being, the drive to make up individual stories about their own lives no can dispute, and which no one can prove either.

Brik’s journey/search for Lazarus is a skillfully reinterpreted story of Jesus. Brik never fails to point out his aversion of Christian beliefs, presenting Lazarus as a mere brick in the story of Christ, a device whose purpose is to strengthen Christ’s divine nature. With the same token, Brik can be said to use this twentieth century Jewish Lazarus as a brick in his own self-search. Through this doubling of the Christ narrative, Hemon masterfully brings all symbolism down to earth and inscribes it in the social realism of potential anarchists. Even though Hemon’s heavy-light style keeps symbolism at bay, inducing the reader into following two parallel stories as realistic social commentaries, one cannot avoid reading Brik and Lazarus as symbolic and highly metaphorical.

An important aspect that Hemon brilliantly thematizes is nostalgia. Nostalgia is frequently described as sinful, in its religious as well as its secularized sense. To dwell in the past is to deny the power of life in the present, to deny the future ahead of oneself. Hemon manages to maintain a rather distorted if not perverse type of nostalgia despite his recurring tongue-in-cheek remarks against nostalgia, cultural puritanism, and even love itself.

With The Lazarus Project, Hemon once again asserts himself as one the major, daring, and brilliant new voices in English-language literature.

Visit Sasha Hemon

Also see Mostlyfiction.

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