The Day Begins At Sunset: A Review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project

June 9, 2008 at 22:52 (Books, History, News, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Lazarus of Bethany was survived by his sisters, Mary and Martha, who had during his fatal sickness bade Jesus to come cure their beloved.  But the Bible testifies that even Jesus was not innocent of tardiness on occasion, and his lingering meant that when at last the prophet arrived in the town of Bethany, Lazarus has been entombed for four days.  Jesus was not, however, discouraged.  To the sisters he is said to have declared: “Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die,” and without another moment’s indecision raised the corpse of Lazarus back to the land of the living, wrapped in grave-shrouds and presumably rather the worse for wear.  The Bible has it that the Lord granted Lazarus a second chance – as, some might assert, the first recorded zombie – and leaves it at that ominous point in the proceedings, but the lore was embellished in the 13th century to include Lazarus’ latter-life escape to Cyprus, where he become an immigrant who lived the proverbial dream, ascending up the rank and file of religion to become the first Larnacan bishop; and without once devouring the brains of his fellows.  More power to him.

To a self-confessed heretic such as myself, it’s not difficult to see why Alexsandar Hemon takes the story for an anchor of sorts.  With such a commingling of appealing themes – of power; the glib timeline of life; of hope against reason; and ultimately, of otherness and its recurrence in time and place – it’s a concise and moreover an appropriate means of fastening the narrative of The Lazarus Project as it trips from country to country and skips from a plot thread in one time period to the next in another.  Alongside the Passion – another of the so-called signs chronicled in the books of the disciple John – the story of Lazarus is among the Bible’s most disturbing, and it fits that Hemon’s modern-day protagonist, Brik, is moved from time to time to consider those hopes and fears that must have plagued Lazarus after his resurrection.  The second chance he was granted is cited, after all, as one of the reasons the high priests and judges sentenced Jesus to the cross.  His death and rebirth helped to spark a revolution, a religion, and much more besides.

 

So too does the murder of Lazarus Averbuch, the young Jew whose horrifying death begins The Lazarus Project down its eye-opening path, threaten to spur on an uprising.  An immigrant looking for a new lease on life after the atrocities of Eastern Europe’s anti-Semitic pogroms, his already-embittered expectations of the Windy City are cut short by seven senseless bullets.  Shot by Chicago’s chief of police and labelled an anarchist assassin by the unsympathetic media, his death is a cause for perverse celebration amongst high-class hate-mongers who believe “his kind” a scourge upon the Earth.  For a moment, it seems their bloodlust is satisfied by the public exhibition of his riddled, broken body, but in the end, the newspaper tirades cried out on street corners and the unceremonious dumping of his remains in an unmarked grave are not enough.  The police, with the might of the people behind them, continue on a calculated crusade against their enemy: anarchists – and every Jew, every outsider, is a suspect, a victim-in-the-making, according to the utter corruptness of their investigation.

Amongst those figures of otherness, Olga – elder sister of the deceased – is most appallingly persecuted.  To her continuing torment, the spectre of young Averbuch is raised; like Lazarus before him, but by more devious hands.  The assistant chief of police “is tireless, for the very notion of freedom is at stake”, and so mistakes a novel for a history, an awkwardness for guilt, and a healthy intellect for an anarchist mind.  The rewritten account of his final moments leave no doubt in casting Lazarus as the aggressor; he is thus denied the right to be buried in the tradition of his religion.  In Olga’s mind he cannot have peace until he is granted that last rite, but she is allowed no progress towards that end by the lecherous reporter William P. Miller and the Fitzes, who the police have charged to prey upon her while she remains weak.  And these are not the only characters who spare Olga their blatant hatred.  She is wrecked by her loss, rendered powerless to fend off the harassment she receives at each stage of her interrupted grief; she begins, even, to question the memory of her late brother, whose wholesale desecration is at an end only when grave-robbers have salvaged his innards in the name of science.

Hounded and haunted, Olga is certainly a more sympathetic character than Brik, a present-day journalist whose rather larger share of the narrative is held back by moments of self-indulgence.  Like Hemon himself, Brik is an accidental immigrant whose stay in Chicago is lengthened when siege separates him from his home, Sarajevo.  Paralysed by his sudden upheaval, he has nevertheless made a life for himself, but despite his success as writer of a niche newspaper column, despite a winning wife and a marriage – happy on the outside at least – Brik is idle, made malcontent by the day-to-day.  When the fates coalesce to motivate him in the form of an old friend and a sizeable grant, he decides to make a go of the book he’s been meaning to write all his life.  Together with Rora – a teller of tall tales, charismatic and confident – he undertakes the titular Lazarus project, retracing the steps that led to the tragic youngster’s untimely end; or rather, following those few he can make out after a century’s uncaring erosion.

Brik and Rora’s journey takes them on an tour some way off the beaten path of Eastern Europe; in these sequences, The Lazarus Project brings to mind a sort of on-the-wagon Fear and Loathing.  Brik is the soul-searcher brought down by bitter reality, and Rora his storied foil, an erratic element from the outset of the novel.  There is a journalistic flair to much of Hemon’s prose which lends the narrative an excellent sense of momentum without sacrificing the clarity that the gonzo school never quite achieved.  The travels he chronicles are precise and often evocative, but Brik’s climatic self-discovery is brought about as much by his unlikely companion and the even unlikelier tales Rora tells as it is by the landscapes they speed through.  Rora is an excellent character, attractive and unpredictable, whose improbable recollections are among the narrative’s highlights, and although it’s impossible to say the same for Brik, whose stagey naiveté frustrates from time to time, he proves ample enough for his purpose; which is to say, for Hemon to fix together the splintered narrative.

It’s during the all-too-brief Olga interludes that The Lazarus Project excels.  The author crafts her descent into the politics of bigotry perfectly, capturing the right moments of her life to reveal the creeping revulsion she surely feels.  From the callous way the police inform her of the immeasurable loss she will struggle to bear to the unbidden cruelty of those figures in society we expect to be impartial, she is thoroughly abused – her rights, those precious few she has, are trampled and spit upon.  The recurring letters home Olga agonises over, in which she must break the awful news to her mother, are tragic in the truest sense.  From the relative high of her humble but respectable life in Chicago to the succession of low points that it devolves into – take, for instance, hauling her anarchist ex free of the tank-full of human faeces swilling about beneath the outhouse – Olga’s heartbreaking story well deserves the deferential precision Hemon treats it with.

From one violence to another, the best sequences of Brik and Rora’s part of The Lazarus Project are similarly styled observations of the evils they happen past.  The random acts encountered by the pair help to inform the same-old-story ethos of the novel – take for instance the slaughter of a dog during their time in Chernivtsi, when a couple watch it “writhing, shredding and slicing itself, trying to escape” the bin of broken glass in which the pitiable animal’s owners have abandoned it, or Rora’s depictions of Rambo, the self-styled freedom fighter who so delights in photographs of the corpses he leaves in his wake.  Hemon does not fear the political reality that has influenced his novel.  Hiding in plain sight, an apparently autobiographical protagonist allows the author to air his beliefs and opinions unashamedly, going so far as to ruminate on the state of affairs in Iraq and the utter insults to civilised society that are Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.  The Lazarus Project is very much a scathing rebuttal of what the American dream has become; as violence is piled on top of indignity and abuse and outright cruelty, all because of a blind fear of otherness, Hemon exposes the great promise for the empty illusion it was, and, arguably, is.  His story is a glimpse into the disenfranchised, the discarded and the forgotten peoples of America and the world that should be cherished for its straightforwardness.  With no need of a postmodern metaphor to wrap his morality around, Hemon simply asserts that the immigrant vision of a new world and a new life is met by the stark truth of the repeat performance of horrors that awaits.  It’s incredibly telling to replace each mention of anarchy and anarchists with terrorism and with terrorists.  Have we really come so far without moving forward at all?

Whatever his politics, Hemon has crafted in The Lazarus Project a challenging narrative purposefully divided by time and place.  It is a difficult novel, certainly, but the author has put it together with such love and lavished it with such exquisite attention that it stands as considered a narrative as it is compelling; its triumph will be quiet, perhaps, but no less groundbreaking for lack of the resounding echoes that should follow.  Hemon’s prose is superlative, still more so when you consider the author only touched pen to paper in the English language a decade ago; his plotting is tight and his characters unforgettable, and amongst all the misery there are the sparks of a keen sense of humour to soften the blow – the language-barrier confusion between glasses and girls in a dank Chisinau hotel room is particularly effective.  Thanks largely to the indefatigable Rora, Brik’s half of the book is a rollicking road-trip through Eastern Europe punctuated by pit-stops that take in the unspeakable evils that men do before arriving headlong at a surprisingly poignant conclusion.  Olga’s interludes, meanwhile, are pitch-perfect in their evocation of suffering and disgust, as touching as they are terrible.  And in the end, Lazarus is just an unknowing character in the stories others tell of his short life – he is a martyr to the anarchists, a twisted story to the reporters, a brother, a son, an immigrant: his otherness obscures his self, and his resurrection by Brik as a guilty truth to be exposed is no less implicated in that dehumanising process of obfuscation.

***

And if, after all of that, you’re hungry for still more, here’s a few links to some further reading:

An introspective piece on the state of Sarajevo after the war:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/travel/05sarajevo.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

An article about the Lazarus incident from the American Jewish Historical Society:
http://www.ajhs.org/publications/chapters/chapter.cfm?documentID=194

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