Sunday, November 23, 2008

Margie's Book Review: Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead Books 2008, 292 pages, $24.95) Available at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn. [Now available in paperback.]

I loved this book so much I even highlighted the hardcover. But I couldn’t resist. When the author is an official “MacArthur grant genius” (wouldn’t that be great on your resume?) I guess it’s okay.

The Lazarus Project, shortlisted for the 2008 National Book Award, is a smart, wry, and insightful immigration story that somehow manages to both honor and challenge our pride in America as a “beacon of hope” to the rest of the world. The novel weaves between the stories of two Chicago immigrants: Lazarus, a Russian Jew who came over in 1908, and the other, Brik, a Bosnian writer who navigates his way in an anxious post-9/11 America. They escaped ethnic cleansing in their homeland, from pogroms in Kishinev to slaughter in Sarajevo, with the hope of melting into the warm pot of the City of Broad Shoulders. Instead, they are confronted with more prejudice and misunderstanding, and learn that a new passport cannot erase their past.

The author was an outsider too, having arrived in Chicago from Sarajevo in 1992, and thus understands both sides of the coveted blue passport. One of the characters tells a feels-like-a-true story about the members of a Moldovan “underwater hockey team” who can’t even swim, but join a faux Olympic team in order to get a visa into Canada, and then promptly disappear before opening ceremonies. When Brik takes a road trip through Eastern Europe, Brik realizes his American passport is “my soul.”

At the same time, Hemon knows that while America still represents the promise of freedom, there is an enormous gulf between arriving and assimilating. It seems like Brik will be able cross that bridge and live the American dream; he meets and marries an American neurosurgeon named Mary. However, the reader slowly learns about the crevices in their marriage: they have a bitter fight about the Abu Ghraib pictures from Iraq. His wife couldn’t comprehend evil, but Brik saw “young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else’s life and death.” As dishes flew, he told his wife that “to be an American you have to know nothing and understand even less. . . .” Later in the book, Brik reveals they also argue about having children. Brik’s afraid his own children would become “too American for me,” that he would “hate what they became; they would live in the land of the free, and I would live in fear of being deserted.” Through Brik and Mary’s marital discord, we can begin to understand how immigrants view our world and why they can’t just be more like us. And more understanding is always a good thing.

There's so much more to enjoy about this book. There are photographs integrated into the story line, supposedly taken by Brik's road trip pal, a Sarajevo-born photographer with fascinatingly hyperbolic war stories; there's the true story of Lazarus Averbach, fictionally expanded from his surviving sister's tender point of view, and there's the story of Sarajevo, all contained in this one novel, like Russian dolls.

This book would be a great for an intense book club discussion. It’s like a cross between Everything is Illuminated, with its tragic but comical road trip through Eastern Europe, and The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, about American peacekeepers in post-war Kosovo. I highly recommend it. It's the work of a genius. (No pressure if you don't like it!)


  1. "feels-like-a-true story" because it is... "Moldovans snorkel to new life" 11 March, 2003

  2. Truth is stranger than fiction!


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