Despite its mere 294 pages, Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project appears to contain three times that. Launched from a historical moment in 1908, the novel provokes a dozen voices spanning a century and two continents. Additionally, The Lazarus Project is not confined to text alone, but incorporates historical and contemporary photographs in its chronicle of resurrection.
The signature event that is the novel’s inspiration occurs a century ago when recent Ukrainian immigrant and pogrom-survivor Lazarus Averbuch visits George Shippy, Chicago’s chief of police. Within minutes, Averbuch lies dead in Shippy’s upscale Lincoln Park living room. Popular opinion and the press portray the event as a narrowly escaped anarchist assassination attempt on Shippy’s life.
Born in 1964 in Sarajevo, then part of Yugoslavia and now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a recent immigrant to the U.S., Hemon recalls ESL stylists Conrad and Nabokov in prose adroitness and his humbling capacity to out-compose native English speakers. Uniquely Hemon’s, however, is the unabashed mining of his own émigré experience. Hemon’s previous novel, Nowhere Man, was a fictionalized send-up of his successful immigration to Chicago; The Lazarus Project offers Lazarus Averbuch’s clearly disastrous one in contrast.
Vladimir Brik, The Lazarus Project’s narrator and a Hemon stand-in, is a struggling writer and Bosnian transplant to Chicago. He describes the book as the story of an “immigrant who escaped the pogrom in Kishinev [Ukraine] and came to Chicago only to be shot by the Chicago chief of police. I wanted to be immersed in the world as it had been in 1908, I wanted to imagine how immigrants lived then.... I identified easily with those travails: lousy jobs, lousier tenements, the acquisition of language, the logistics of survival, the ennoblement of self-fashioning.” That last is perhaps Hemon’s most overt mission statement, the touchstone for all his prose peregrinations.
The Lazarus Project re-imagines Averbruch’s ordeal through press reports and period photographs, but also—with photographer Velibor Bozovic (fictionalized in the novel as Rora)—by returning to Ukraine. The narrative interleaves between 1908 and Brik/Rora’s present-day quest, wandering into Lviv and Sarajevo, places Averbuch never went. Along the way new stories are uncovered, including those of Olga (Averbuch’s sister), Rora, Isador Maron (Averbuch’s friend), Brik’s wife Mary, and others.
While Hemon’s writing is clear, clever, and often humorous, it is the heterogeneity of voices that fail the narrative. Hemon attempts to tie them together, sometimes with simple verbal tricks, but the overall result is altogether disparate and unsatisfying, despite moments of brilliance.