In May, I wrote about Hemon’s Nowhere Man that I wasn’t sure how to respond to it. I gave it a mixed review that, had it been a stock market chart, would have looked like an outline of the Sierra Nevada. I have no such doubts about The Lazarus Project.
This one is mature, sensitive, focused, painful, and beautifully realized. In a style post-modernists seem to like to claim for themselves, this is a book about a man writing a book. The book is, of course, about a man named Lazarus. Not the biblical Lazarus (though Hemon draw inevitable parallels), but a young Jewish immigrant of the same name who was shot down in the foyer of Chicago’s chief of police’s house in the 1920’s. I’d love to remember where I heard or read of this incident before–it might have been in a film. In any case, the incident actually happened, and it occasioned one of the multiple convulsions of the red scare hysteria that was so much a part of the history of the first twenty years of the American twentieth century. I am reminded of Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (see my review of Dec. 4, ’08) about the Boston police strike. I am also reminded of the current anti-Islamic hysteria.
Hemon’s protagonist, Brik, receives a grant to write a book about this Lazarus, who was gunned down before he could declare his intentions for presenting himself at the chief’s home. Brik uses his grant money for an expedition to Europe both in an attempt to trace the emigration of Lazarus’ family from Russia after a 1908 pogrom and to visit his own roots in Sarajevo, where he spent much of his boyhood dodging bullets during the Yugoslavian civil war.
Chapters alternate between Lazarus’ story and Brik’s. The parallels are numerous and bountiful. The pain of being uprooted from one’s home, family, memories, language (Many characters in the book speak several languages.) pervade the events. The judgements of dominant cultures on foreigners and vice versa create a rich and bewildering kaleidoscope of color, light, darkness. So many opportunities for wrong actions, misunderstandings. Even married to a successful surgeon who obviously loves him, Brik cannot be settled in himself. He is driven by despair and violence to reject and hurt the very things that would nurture him.
I also said in my review of Nowhere Man that I envied writers like Hemon and conrad and Nabakov who can acquire another language and use it better than many–most–of us for whom it is a native tongue. My envy is doubled now, as is my admiration. Hemon is the real deal.