It’s hard for me to imagine relocating to a new country where the language and customs are unfamiliar. Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian who arrived in Chicago just before the start of the Balkan wars, gives such an experience palpable texture with his novel The Lazarus Project. The story focuses on a young man named Vladimir Brik, who, like Hemon, is a Bosnian who arrived in Chicago just prior to the wars in his homeland. He’s living a somewhat aimless existence, teaching English as a second language before beginning a newspaper column about his experience. He’s married to an American woman – a brilliant surgeon, in fact – and he struggles with the notion that she is the breadwinner. Thus, when he’s given the opportunity to win a grant that will allow him to write about another immigrant from his homeland, he jumps at the chance, eventually taking a trip back to Sarajevo with his childhood friend Rora.
The story shifts back and forth between Brik’s story and the man about whom he’s writing, a real-life character named Lazarus Averbuch. Averbuch was killed after visiting Chicago Police Chief George Shippy at his home in 1908. Suspecting the young man of evil (and anarchistic) intentions, Shippy asked his wife to search Averbuch, which led to the soon-to-be-deceased gentleman to protest and pull out a knife and gun, firing at the chief’s son. Shippy then shot Averbuch, and some unease occurred. Averbuch was Jewish, and a number of prominent Jews in the city feared that a pogrom like the ones that caused them to flee their homeland might also occur due to “anarchist” activity.
Brik becomes fascinated with the story and intends to write a book about it, and we effectively see his work unfold even as his own real-life events cause him to understand that as he has grown accustomed to life in America, so has he lost some of his own identity. The further away he is from his wife in actual distance, the more his feelings for her lessen. He finds an affinity for his own nationality and a real attraction to Averbuch’s sister, Olga, who is drawn with exquisite and heartbreaking detail.
If I do have one regret, it’s that I chose to read the book in Kindle format. The Lazarus Project is illustrated with a variety of photographs (such as the one above) and they were difficult to see on the Kindle. I fear that detracted from the overall experience. Still, as a thought-provoking reflection on meanings of identity and the importance of retaining and remembering culture, it’s a meaningful novel. I’ll be interested to see what Hemon comes up with next.