The Lazarus Project

by Aleksandar Hemon

hundred years ago, a young man named Lazarus Averbuch, a Bosnian
Jew and new immigrant to Chicago, knocks on the door of George
Shippy, the Chief of Police. He is shot dead, accused of anarchist
ties thanks to attending lectures by Emma Goldman. His wife Olga is
forced to pick up the pieces alone: to find some solace and justice
for Lazarus, to survive as a widowed woman, and to manage the
ethnic tensions of living in a city with little tolerance for Jews,
unwelcome immigrants and heterodox politics.

Brik, a modern newspaper columnist and Bosnian immigrant, becomes
fascinated with this true story and decides to uncover more of its
censored history. Feeling generally displaced by the path of his
life, an uneager participant in an alienating marriage, he jumps at
a grant that would allow him to travel and research both
Lazarus’s heritage and his own. Not to say he has
particularly strong ties to Bosnia, but he capitalizes on the
project to supplement his only half-hearted sense of immigrant
otherness: “Just like everybody else, I enjoy the unearned
nobility of belonging to one nation and not the other; I like
deciding who can join us, who is out, and who is to be welcome when

So off to Bosnia! In the hopes of finding some “home,”
to lay down any firm ties (be they Bosnian or American),
Brik travels with Rora, his decidedly Bosnian friend and tour
guide. The original purpose of the trip --- a fact-finding
expedition to Lazarus’s hometown --- is soon left behind as
Brik visits sites from his childhood and elsewhere in order to
escape his American life and find something resembling a cultural
identity. Rora is more or less like every oh-so-Eastern-European
local, with an alien sense of humor and street-smart sensibility
most recently incarnated in Jonathan Safran Foer’s EVERYTHING
IS ILLUMINATED. While certainly the most stereotypical character in
the novel, Rora’s jokes and stories from his war reporting
career brilliantly pepper Brik’s already bizarre road trip.
Rora and Brik’s exchanges are both wildly comedic and deeply
poignant as Brik gains some sort of understanding, even if he
doesn’t like what it is.

Complementing this narrative is a constant throwback to Olga in
1908, also trying to solve the mystery of Lazarus’s death.
Through brief imagined letters to her mother and conversations with
Lazarus’s friend hiding in an outhouse from the police, she
is forced to come to terms with the fact of her immigrant
otherness. This portion of the novel is told in a disarming present
tense that makes even its historical parts come to life. Aleksandar
Hemon absolutely nails the atmosphere of 1908 Chicago, showing with
an impressive economy of words the scope of what has changed and
what has remained the same.

At the heart of both these stories is Hemon’s incredible
sense of style. His prose bubbles and pops with originality and
humor --- one-liners convey whole images and extended descriptions
hone in on single moments. His dialogue manages to be completely
naturalistic while also conforming to his stylized
traveler/historian/Bosnian road trip aesthetic. And in his
non-narrative passages, there is the perfect amount of reasonable
self-consciousness to complement the seriousness: “What I
like about America, I said, is that there is no space left for
useless metaphysical questions. There are no parallel universes
there. Everything is what it is, it’s easy to see and
understand everything.” This claim rings both true and
unbearably false, as Lazarus’s, Olga’s and Brik’s
experiences demonstrate. But witty paradoxes like this make up the
soul of the text, which goes beyond the typical story of the
immigrant experience into larger questions of how to find
one’s home, and what to do when one gets there.


Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on December 30, 2010

The Lazarus Project
by Aleksandar Hemon

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1594489882
  • ISBN-13: 9781594489884