The Lazarus Project
Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project begins dramatically, with a factual account of how, on March 2, 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, an impoverished nineteen-year-old Jew, was shot seven times when he showed up unexpectedly at the home of George Shippy, the Chicago chief of police. Why the indigent young outsider was calling on Shippy at his affluent address remains a mystery, though the chief’s assumption that Averbuch was an anarchist intent on violence became the official verdict. Though he is not Jewish (or, for that matter, Muslim, Serb, or Croat), Vladimir Brik, a sparsely employed writer who left Bosnia for Chicago in 1992, before the war that finally put an end to Yugoslavia as a federated republic, becomes intrigued by the enigmas of the century-old case. Financed by a grant, he determines to write a book that will bring the immigrant Lazarus, like his Biblical namesake, back to life again.
As accomplice in his Lazarus project, Brik recruits a former classmate in Sarajevo, a photographer named Ahmed Rora, just as Hemon appropriates the photographs of Velibor Bozovic to accompany his text. Rora, an extroverted, energetic fellow, is fond of telling jokes and yarns and uses his camera to insert himself into the lives of others. Brik determines that in order to understand and write about Lazarus, who had fled anti-Semitic violence in Europe, he will retrace Lazarus’s steps before arriving in the United States. “I needed to follow Lazarus all the way back to the pogrom in Kishinev, to the time before America,” he explains. “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 elsewhere.” During the eventful journey through Eastern Europe, Rora, who came to Chicago after the Balkan wars, provides Brik with lurid details of violence and duplicity during the siege of Sarajevo. Rora claims he fought in a guerrilla group under the command of a flamboyant bully who called himself Rambo.
Himself an immigrant to Chicago from Serbia who was determined to learn English well enough to forge a literary career in it, Hemon deftly deploys his adopted language to create a complex fiction about storytelling, identity, and survival. In chapters that alternate between 1908 and the present, the novel suggests parallels in bloodshed and xenophobia. In each era, a dishonest reporter named Miller provides a distorted version of events. In 1908, William P. Miller, reporting for the Chicago Tribune, sensationalizes the death of Lazarus Averbuch, concocting inflammatory prose that heightens communal mistrust. During the siege of Sarajevo, a war reporter also named Miller is a journalistic buccaneer more intent on getting scoops than getting the story right. Lazarus Averbuch’s killing occurs on the eve of a visit to Chicago by the notorious anarchist leader Emma Goldman, and those with power and privilege, still smarting from the destructive turmoil of the Haymarket Riot of 1886, are suspicious of outsiders, especially if they are poor, Jewish, and freethinking. For most of Chicago, the stranger’s death is framed as a victory over anarchy.
Olga Averbuch, however, is devastated by the death of her beloved younger brother, whose move to America she had encouraged and had sponsored. Though the authorities decide to dispose of his body unceremoniously in a pauper’s grave, she stubbornly insists on having him reburied in a respectful Jewish ceremony. She refuses consolation from radicals who, claiming him as a martyr useful to their cause, are indifferent to his individual human life. She is approached by Hermann Taube, an urbane lawyer representing the prosperous, assimilated Jews of Chicago, who urges her to cooperate with the police in order to avert an outbreak of anti-Semitism. Like her brother Lazarus, Olga has survived the deadly Kishinev massacre of 1903, three days of anti-Semitic...
(The entire section is 1,616 words.)