Aleksander Hemon: ‘I wrote it as I was angry’
Aleksander Hemon was visiting Chicago when war broke out in 1992 in Sarajevo, his birthplace. He has lived almost uninterruptedly in the American city ever since. Now 44, he cites Rainer Maria Rilke's definition of art of worth coming "out of necessity".
History weighs too heavily on Hemon for him to sign up to either post-modernism's arbitrary rhetorical whimsy or the contemporary US craze for self-centred memoir. All the turbulence, violence and suffering he has seen, or ever tried to imagine, fuels his urgency to write.
"I have to talk about these things," he says. "As disappointed as I am in so many things, I cannot give up. I want it to matter to someone somewhere, some day, somehow."
With his third book, The Lazarus Project, Hemon weaves the parallel stories of two immigrants to Chicago: the real-life Russian-Jewish émigré, Lazarus Averbuch - who escaped the Kishinev pogrom only to be gunned down in 1908, aged 19, by the city's assistant chief of police - and a maudlin Bosnian writer, Vladimir Brik, who, in 2004, sets about researching the circumstances of Averbuch's death.
Hemon's work is fired not just by the inchoate violence of the Yugoslav wars that he experienced by proxy via satellite news broadcasts and conversations in public phone booths, but also increasingly by anger at the war the US is now prosecuting, both with firepower abroad, and with what Hemon argues is a totalitarian demand for unquestioned loyalty at home.
In 2001, someone handed Hemon a copy of Walter Roth and Joe Kraus's slim volume, An Accidental Anarchist, which documents the facts of Lazarus's murder. Thus were the seeds sewn for The Lazarus Project which, although it has the electrifying pace of a thriller, and is written with the trademark sensitivity for language and character that has seen Hemon heaped with critical praise since his debut book The Question of Bruno came out in 2000, it is also part-parable: Lazarus's murderer was not just exonerated, he was actively celebrated for his blow against "anarchism".
This, Hemon says, is a mirror for today's tide of patriotism which at its worst allowed American Military Intelligence not just to carry out human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib, but triumphantly to photograph their crimes.
Lazarus links antisemitism in the Russian Empire to anti-anarchism within turn-of-the-century America, Yugoslavia's rabid nationalism, and America's post-9/11 jingoism. As far as fiction can be, it is a howl of dissent against the intolerance, indifference and hatred unleashed by identity politics, religious, ethnic or racial.
Hemon's writing is informed by the onion layers of his own identity, as it evolves and dissolves over time: Yugoslav; Bosnian; American; immigrant. "What interests me is how I became the person I am," he says. "History when it's neatly organised reduces this process in its horrible, infinite complexity. For me, my life is inscribed in my body." When Brik is asked for his identity in the novel, he answers: "It's complicated."
Although antisemitism is a major theme, neither Hemon nor Brik is Jewish, and Brik's American "native wife" asks him how he can possibly hope to describe Lazarus's Jewishness.
Hemon's answer to the same question is unapologetic: "I tried to understand what it was like to be in Chicago in 1908, to imagine what it would be like to be subject to those insults and humiliations. What it was like to see the face of your dead brother in the newspaper, with the parts of his face numbered to show the supposed physical signs of his ‘degeneracy'... so how does it feel if you saw that? I feel compelled to try to understand... How do you speak in the context, in the face of a crime? How do you write after Auschwitz? How do you write in the face of this injustice?
"I was fantasising about The Lazarus Project as a book that my daughter would read 10 years from now and know not that I wrote a brilliant novel - I don't care about that - but just that I was not complicit. I was angry. That is my freedom."
The Lazarus Project is published by Picador. It will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the JC