Life and a death in Chicago

By David Herman, November 20, 2008
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On March 2, 1908, Lazarus Averbuch walks into the home of the chief of the Chicago police, who shoots him dead. Averbuch is a young Jewish immigrant, who fled his home in Kishinev after the infamous pogrom. It is the period of the anarchist scare and attendant hostility towards the new wave of Jewish immigrants. This is the dramatic beginning, based on historical fact, to Aleksander Hemon's latest novel, The Lazarus Project (Picador, £14.99). What follows is a gripping tale of history, exile and loss.

Vladimir Brik, like Hemon himself, is a young Bosnian writer living in Chicago today. He becomes fascinated by the story of Lazarus and decides to find out more about where Lazarus came from.

Helped by a grant and accompanied by Rora, an old friend who is a photographer, he sets out to trace Averbuch's roots in Eastern Europe. Hemon's book alternates between chapters set in 1908 Chicago and Brik's journey through post-1989 Eastern Europe.

On their travels, Brik and Rora discuss what happened to their native Bosnia during the 1990s. Brik left before the war and his views are coloured by the exile's feelings of displacement and loss. Decent, smart, a failure, and trying to build a new life in America, he is an endearing character. But Brik's angst cuts little ice with Rora. After all, he lived through the war and tells dramatic and sometimes terrifying stories on their travels through a superbly evoked landscape of the former Soviet Union, leading to a dramatic climax in their native Sarajevo.

To say that this is a gripping novel about two dark moments in history - which it is - undersells Hemon's achievement. He moves seamlessly from evoking poor immigrant lives in turn-of-the-century Chicago to seedy Eastern European hotels and brothels. There are some astonishing set-pieces: the murder of Lazarus, the pogrom at Kishinev, a visit to a Jewish cemetery.

The novel is packed with literary references. A bartender in 1908 Chicago is called Bruno Schultz, a favourite writer of Hemon's. Averbuch's English teacher is called Mr Brik. The stories of Averbuch and Brik leak into each other. The people who give Brik his grant are called Schuettler; so is the assistant police chief, investigating the Averbuch case. As Brik tells the story of Lazarus, he keeps dropping in bits and pieces of his life, so although Lazarus' story is grounded in history, it is history with a very literary twist.

This may sound fancy and overwrought but Hemon's is an impressive balancing act. The Lazarus Project has all the virtues of the best kind of realism - rich description, unforgettable characters, a plot that twists and turns. But it is also playfully intelligent and full of serious reflections on some of the big issues of our time. In short, it is a joy to read.

    Last updated: 10:19am, November 20 2008