Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

Its first chapter has movie trailer quality. Chicago 1908. Lazarus, a young man, a "foreigner", one with soiled shoes and a "swarthy face" knocks on the door of Chief Shippy's home and hands him an envelope. Instead of taking said envelope, there is gunfire. There is drama as shots are fired. There is one account, which doesn't seem to tie in with what actually happened (and this actually did happen in real life). The foreigner lies dying.

Cut to present day America, where Brik, a Bosnian immigrant who writes a column for the Chicago Tribune is obsessed with the story of the shooting of Lazarus:

"I wanted my future book to be about the immigrant who escaped the pogrom 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 loved doing research, poring through old newspapers and books and photos, reciting curious facts on a whim."

But there are holes in his story, and he is unsure of himself, of his story, which he tells to a long-lost friend from Bosnia, Rora, a photographer who now lives in Chicago. Rora convinces Brik that he needs to trace Lazarus' life before America.

"I needed to reimagine what I could not retrieve; I needed to see what I could not imagine. I needed to step outside my life in Chicago and spend time deep in the wilderness of somewhere."

And I find myself wanting to read slowly, to pause an reflect on Hemon's writing. But with a storyline which evolves between different eras, from 1908 Chicago to present-day eastern Europe, this book is full of interesting layers and I often feel the need to read on, ponder later. For there is Lazarus' story, as well as his sister Olga's; there is Brik and his relationship with his wife; there is Brik and his friendship with Rora; then there is Rora and his many tales of Bosnia

"Is this world for the dead or the living?"

"If there are more dead than living, then the world is about death, and the question is: What are we to do with all the death? Who is going to remember all the dead?"

Why is it that Birk (and Hemon himself) is obsessed about the death of a young man a long time ago? As the lives of Brik and Lazarus become intertwined, what about the similarities between the character Brik and the author Hemon himself?
"Every time, you think maybe this here is a different world, but it's all the same: they live, we die. So here it is again.”
I started out thinking this was a straightforward story but as I read on, I realised that it was more than a story about a murder that happened a long time ago. It is a tale about tales, one of smoke and mirrors, reflections and light.

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