The Lazarus Project.
"The time and place are the only things I am certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago. Beyond that is the haze of history and pain, and now I plunge."
From that precise date The Lazarus Project begins, immediately splitting into a dual storyline where, in the first, fact is bound by fiction, and in the second, fiction is bound by fact.
Chicagoan Aleksandar Hemon has somehow created a post-modernist historical meta-novel. I'm not exactly sure that's even possible, but I read the damn thing, and he did it, so there you go.
The story opens with the true story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish Russian immigrant gunned down in 1908 by Chicago's chief of police, Chief Shippy, who tries to justify the murder by fabricating a history of anarchy and terrorism, fueled by anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant paranoia. Just look at young Lazarus, Shippy and the papers say, obviously he was a murderous anarchist.
Moving forward to 2008, Vladimir Brik, a Chicago writer, becomes interested in the ancient crime and is moved to write a fictionalized account. After securing a research grant, Brik, a Sarajevo native, takes off with his childhood friend Rora to eastern Europe. Brik and Rora, now a war photographer, make the trek from the Ukraine to Sarajevo, loosely researching the life of young Lazarus Averbuch and his older sister, Olga.
The novel moves back and forth between story lines, touchingly filling in the gaps surrounding Lazarus and Olga, who survived the pogroms in Russia, only to escape to even greater tragedy in the United States. In an interview Hemon gave to Powell's, he claimed to have found writing from a woman's point of view to be challenging. In his cringe-inducing description of Olga's treatment by the police and the press in the aftermath of the murder, he more than adequately met that challenge. Hemon re-creates the scene where Olga is taken to the morgue to identify the body of her brother. No one has bothered to tell her he is dead; her shock and grief are to be their entertainment for the duration of the novel:
Men are gathered around the chair where Lazarus sits, and she is relieved to see he is alive. She sighs and grips Fitzpatrick's forearm. But one of the men is holding Lazarus's head; her brother's eyes are closed, his face ashen; her heart stops, frozen. Fitzgerald urges her on. Fitzpatrick says, as if delivering a punch line: "Happy to see him? Give him a kiss.." The crowd titters, transfixed by Olga steeping toward Lazarus, as if she were mounted on cothurni: a short, reluctant step back, then two awkward steps forward to touch his lifeless cheek, whereupon she collapses, unconscious. The crowd gasps. The Fitzes carry her to the side door opening into the alley, where they unbutton her dress and allow her to breathe the cold air. The detectives smoke, while Miller monitors Olga's feelings, as well as her chest. "That must've been a big surprise for you, girlie," Fitzpatrick says. They hear the booms of the photographer's flash inside.
Lazarus has been dehumanized as a young Jewish man, but Olga has been dehumanized twice, once as a Jew and again as a woman. The leering commentary, lifted from old Tribune articles about the murder, has been inserted into the novel, almost as if it had to be, or we would never believe such taunting cruelty would be possible.
As for the morgue scene itself, that was real, too. Before each chapter is a photo of Chicago in 1908 or Eastern Europe in 2008, and the death photo of Averbuch is there.
In the other story, Brik and Rora bumble around Eastern Europe, spending the grant money on terrifying cab rides and wretched hotels that double as brothels. Brik, despite his detached, ironic tone, is somewhat of a naïf, constantly surprised by the often squalid conditions of human life but trying very hard not to be. Rora is the true cynic, photographing everything but impressed by nothing. Throughout the journey he tells a third tale of his life as a war photographer in Sarajevo during the genocide, and his involvement with a psychopathic war criminal named Rambo, who, he convinces Brik, will kill him if he is spotted back in Bosnia. Rora spins this tale, interspersed with shaggy dog jokes, throughout the journey, telling Brik everything and nothing all at once, while Brik, who is much quieter, gives himself away to everyone he meets.
As the centuries-apart stories progress, the parallels of genocide, racism, immigration, and dispossession bind the tales to each other, and characters from one story begin to bleed into another. Even the tale of Rora and Brik wavers between fact and fiction. Hemon and a photographer friend made the same journey as Rora and Brik while researching the novel, and the photographs taken by Rora that dot the novel were taken by Velibor Božović, Hemon's travelling companion.
Simultaneously aloof and compelling, true and fictitious, The Lazarus Project is an ambitious novel, inviting the reader to examine the many angles of love and cruelty, and the meaning of home.
The Lazarus Project
by Aleksandar Hemon
May, 2008 by Riverhead