Monday, November 3, 2008

Lazarus, Come Forth!

Bosnian-American Aleksandar Hemon, in his latest novel The Lazarus Project, offers a double story structure to suit his theme of dual citizenship. The narrator, Brik, is a a Bosnian expatriate and unemployed writer married to an American brain surgeon. To salvage his dignity, he has to publish a book. The pursuit of his subject, the 1908 killing of a Russian immigrant, Lazarus, by a policeman in Chicago, sets him on a journey across Eastern Europe. Brik (like Hemon) missed the Bosnian war, since he was in the U.S. when the shooting began and only heard the "steadily unreal rumors". He packs a load of survivor's guilt which gives rise to incessant questions.

The story lines are woven through alternating chapters. Lazarus was gunned down as a suspected anarchist, while his sister Olga was left to fend for herself against the hysteria and city interests, offering a parallel to the War on Terror. Brik is accompanied on his journey by his childhood friend Rora, a gambler, photographer veteran of the Bosnian war and an epic Old World figure. Rora is a storyteller in need of a scribe; he's also the opportunist, connected with warlords, who once sold "replica" chunks of the Berlin Wall and replaced prayers with native nursery rhymes as he led religious tours through Medjugorje collecting big tips. Rora offers a continual entertaining stream of stories but repels all questions. He has replaced questions with tales, as Brik will come to understand. Rora tells Brik he will never know anything.
Let me tell you what the problem is, Brik. Even if you knew what you want to know, you would still know nothing. You ask questions, you want to know more, but no matter how much more I tell you, you will never know anything. That's the problem.

Brik's wife Mary also resists questions. About death, when Brik asks if she ever gets angry, she answers: "When a patient dies ... I feel that he is dead." Mary won't acknowledge the mistakes America is making in the current war, which causes friction between them. He notes that her "hands are bloodied by love."

For Brik, religious observance has blocked the quest for truth. Mary and her family are Catholic, whereas Brik, when asked about his faith, answers ironically: "I am nothing... God knows God is no friend of mine.. I envy people who believe in that crap. They don't worry about the meaning of life and things, whereas I do."

As for ethics, he knows his own "moral waddling", sleeping late instead of working and with porn residing on his computer. He is "forever stuck in moral mediocrity" between Mary's high ground and Rora's nihilism. A journalist named Miller figures in both stories; as writers they cannot hold onto neutrality; in both cases they become implicated in the crimes.

Brik, seeing himself as a man who escaped with his life from a place of death, wonders why Lazarus would be resurrected only to continue wandering the earth. He wants to know: "Did the biblical Lazarus dream, locked in the clayey cave? Did he remember his life in death--all of it, every moment? ... Did he have to disremember his previous life and start from scratch, like an immigrant?" As he wanders through the graveyard of his grandfather's birthplace in the Ukraine, he chants: "Hoydee-ho, haydee-hi, all I want is not to die."

Brik confirms his unstated suspicion that all are implicated in the violence which recruits supposedly good people. After hiring a driver on their journey, he and Rora are used as an alibi for human trafficking. They rescue the girl involved, and in doing so Brik finds his own good intentions tested. By the end of the story, Brik will have a chance to sort through the events and stories, from his own and Rora's experience. He ends with the beginning, which is the intention to write, and what he will carry forward are these same questions.

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