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     Volume 7 Issue 44 | November 7, 2008 |

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Book Review

The Lazarus Project

Bharti Kirchner

Captain Evans holding the body of Lazarus Averbuch. Historical photographs and severa taken by Aleksandar Hemon's friend Velibor Bozovic are an important part of the book.

The year is 1908, the place is Chicago and fear of anarchism is rampant. Lazarus Averbuch, a young Eastern European Jew, comes to the house of the Chief of Police to deliver a note. Even before Lazarus has stated the reason for the visit, he's shot and killed by the chief.

Meanwhile, Olga, Lazarus' sister, who shares an apartment with him, receives a visit from the police. They question her in an attempt to find a connection between Lazarus and the anarchists, at first hiding the news of his unfortunate death. Then, when she learns about it and expresses her wish for a proper burial, they're unable to produce the body. Eventually, the authorities cover up the incident by portraying it as an anarchist plot.

A century later, Vladimir Brik, a Chicago writer of Bosnian descent, stumbles upon the Lazarus incident. Struck by this story of injustice, Brik decides to fictionalize it in order to shed light on what actually took place. Brik, who is married to Mary, an American neurosurgeon, is currently unemployed. Their marriage is showing signs of strain, and when a literary grant is offered to Brik, he accepts it with delight. The money will allow him to travel for research purposes and provide a respite from his uncomfortable marital situation.

Together with Rora, a fellow Bosnian and photographer, Brik sets out on a trip to Eastern Europe in search of Lazarus' past. They begin with the town in Russia where Lazarus was born and journey on, tracing the history of this pogrom victim and political refugee, interviewing people, but often simply imagining the past. "Here Lazarus lost his first money gambling; here he was flagellated in his dreams by the Kishinev pogromchiks; here he was deflowered ... "

Their curiosity satisfied, Brik and Rora leave for Sarajevo, where both spent their childhood years. Such nostalgic times are fleeting, however. In an unexpected turn of events, Brik makes a decision that will alter the course of his life.

In his second novel, "The Lazarus Project" MacArthur "genius grant" winner Aleksandar Hemon ("Nowhere Man") has undertaken the challenge of interweaving two narratives, one factual, another fictional. With the Lazarus story line, which is believed to closely follow actual historical events, he's done a convincing job. The murder scene has been drawn with care, and the same goes for Olga's harassment in the hands of the police. The letters Olga attempts to write to her mother in Russia are simply heartbreaking.

On the other hand, the fictional Brik story line tends to meander, crammed with idle conversations, odd encounters and digressions into hazy memories of the past. Hemon, however, delivers a startling finish with a poignant twist.

It has been said of Hemon's earlier works that he never writes a boring sentence. Speaking of happier times with Mary, Brik muses: "We stood there, squeezing each other's hands as though trying to press through the flesh to the bones and then beyond. She kissed my cheek and neck and I felt the joy of omnipresent love everything around me speaking about me with affection, and Mary was listening."

This review first appeared in The Seattle Times.

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