Critic Patrick McGrath states that The Lazarus Project is about Hemon’s “extensive repertoire of fiercely held obsessions, which include Bosnia, America, identity, history, friendships, life, death, resurrection, the nature of evil, storytelling, the impossibility of truth, the siege of Sarajevo, old photographs, the absence of God, violence, war, fraud, and espionage." There is a bit of all of these themes in the novel. As Hemon explains, there was a “cluster of interests” that attracted him to the Lazarus story, which he discovered after reading the bookAccidental Anarchist. Just one of those interests might not have been enough for him, “but the fact that all of those were in that story, surrounding the Lazarus Averbuch killing, attracted me."
The Nature of Reality
The juxtaposition of what is real and what is not real in this novel forces the reader to examine the nature of reality itself. The storytelling motif strongly illustrates this theme. Hemon believes that “fiction helps constitute reality—rather than reflect it.” The relationship between fiction and reality is “continuous,” he says. In order to understand reality, “to recognize it as reality, we have to narrate it to ourselves or to each other.” Like his idol, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, Hemon believes that the word “reality” should only be used within quotation marks. “That doesn’t mean that everything is unreal, or that everything is equally real. It’s far more complicated than that." These are confusing words that boil down to one thing: reality is relative.
If one shares Hemon’s view of reality, one will not become frustrated with trying to figure out what is real and what is not real in his novel. The accounts of the Averbuch murder as reported in the newspaper are real to the police, but they are not what really happened. Olga used to think her memories of her brother explained who he was, but the information she receives from Lazarus’s friend Isador causes her to question their reality. Rora’s stories have elements of truth and fiction. Brik’s concept of reality is the opposite of Mary’s because they view life through different lenses. He sees evil where she sees good intentions gone awry. The novel itself is labeled “historical fiction.” By definition, this means that it is only partly real. Since Brik believes that “Americans expect the truth and nothing but the truth,” in order to embrace his view of reality, one must suspend one’s belief that reality can be defined. Truth cannot be an absolute if one can define one’s own reality.
The Immigrant in America
Here is a joke: Suja comes to America and Muja shows him his fancy house, his top-notch bank, his expensive sports car, his swanky pool, and his beautiful wife. Suja asks, “Who is that brawny, suntanned young man massaging your wife?” Muja replies, “Well, that’s me!” A Bosnian would understand this joke’s message: “The American dream often happens to someone else." Clearly, Hemon, through the character of Brik, is mad at America. Americans have not learned anything in 100 years. What happened to Lazarus is still happening to immigrants in America in the aftermath of 9/11. Hemon believes the rhetoric exposed in Lazarus’s story has not changed much—“the need to have a foreign enemy that could be cast as the opposite of us." In his view, Americans are still looking for a Communist under every bed or an anarchist around every corner “threatening America."
To Brik, the story of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch is far from obscure. It symbolizes what Brik believes is the reality of “The American Dream”—not the cycle of “displacement, travails, redemption, success” but one of despair and destruction where hard work and motivation do not guarantee success. Overwhelming social forces are against the characters in The Lazarus Project,and none of them controls their lives. Lazarus is a hard worker, yet he becomes the sacrificial lamb on the altar of xenophobic Chicago circa 1908. Olga is a hard-working immigrant forced to violate her religious beliefs for the good of the community. Brik has a degree in English language and literature that he obtained before coming to the United States, yet in America, he is fired from his teaching job and forced to be “kept by his wife.” In Bosnia, he proclaims, “money has a man’s face.” Susie Schuettler tells Brik she enjoys his column because “it was amazing...how different the things you knew well looked through the eyes of a foreigner,” yet Brik looks upon this low-paid writing as demeaning when compared to the amount of money his wife Mary makes as a doctor.
The immigrants in Hemon’s novel are all angry at America. Brik wants his future book about Lazarus to reflect this anger. He does not want to write about immigrants who “tear up at the sight of the Statue of Liberty, throwing the lice-infested Old Country clothes on the sacrificial pyre of a new identity.” Before he was murdered, Lazarus was angry at shopkeepers who assumed he did not have a dime to purchase lozenges. Olga is angry at the Chicago police for killing her brother and persecuting her. She is angry at the Jewish community for forcing her to sacrifice her principles in order to preserve the peace. Isador Maron is angry because in America, “Few possess everything, many possess nothing. We are the many.” Rora is angry at American tourists from Indiana for “chasing the shadow of true experience” by buying phony trophies of the Berlin Wall or for having the audacity to ask him at a religious shrine to “lead the prayer in his language, the request implying an Indiana-sized tip.” Brik is angry at Mary for believing, like most Americans, that “America is founded on good intentions.” He asks, “How do I see America? I look to my left. I look at Mary.” Everything Americans do is fine because they believe they are inherently good, Brik concludes. Hemon explains that this belief has led to outrages such as the Lazarus murder (protecting Chicago from the anarchist threat) and “the Iraq fiasco.” Americans are in Iraq with good intentions, so what can go wrong? “I believe it’s the act that counts,” he says, “not the intentions."
Brik’s (and Hemon’s) view of immigration in America is one of postmodern despair. Lazarus is not resurrected in America. Instead, his body is cut up by medical students and buried in a pauper’s grave. His friend Isador Maron is smuggled to Canada because he...
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