Aleksandar Hemon is a Bosnian author who has lived in America since 1992 and written in English since 1995. He's frequently compared to Nabokov and Conrad, two other authors who wrote their most celebrated works in English, rather than their first language.
The Lazarus Project takes the true story of Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant to the US who was shot dead by the Chicago chief of police in 1908, and combines it with the fictional story of Vladimir Brik, a Serbian novelist living in Chicago.
Like Hemon, Brik was stranded in the US as a tourist when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. Brik has since married an American surgeon, whose salary keeps them both while he plans his book about Averbuch. When he runs into an old friend, Ahmed Rora, the pair decide to travel to Eastern Europe to retrace Averbuch's steps. Rora is a photographer and he documents the trip while enthralling Brik with tall stories from war-torn Sarajevo.
The reasons for Averbuch's shooting remain unknown but afterwards the Chicago police claimed he was an anarchist who planned to assassinate the police chief. Focusing on Lazarus's sister Olga as she tries to come to terms both with her brother's death and with the brutal techniques of the police, Hemon draws a comparison with the panic over Jewish anarchists in the early 20th Century and the fear of Muslim terrorists one hundred years later.
The book is illustrated with historical photographs of Lazarus and with photos taken by Velibor Bozovic, Hemon's best friend, when the pair made the same trip as Brik and Rora. The lines between Hemon and Brik are blurry, clearly, and as the book goes on, the stories of Brik, Averbuch and Rora begin to blur too.
Hemon's writing is delightfully odd, with strange word choices adding unusual colours to his descriptions. The book has the feel of a comic novel but the subject matter is tragic and poignant.
The mixing of modern-day and historical stories that gradually entwine to shed light on our modern world reminded me strongly of Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days. While Whitehead was concerned with the construction of America through mythology, Hemon is interested in nationhood and immigration and death. The incredible weight of sadness grows throughout the novel, culminating in a horrifying scene in which the Averbuch family are caught in the Kishinev pogrom.
The Lazarus Project is ambitious in scope but Hemon is equal to the task he has set himself. It's to his credit that such a complex work feels deceptively straightforward to read and that he communicates with moral clarity without ever over-simplifying his story.