Aleksandar Hemon won the MacArthur "genius grant" after only two works of fiction: The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man. While he penned both in English, the Bosnian immigrant to the United States learned the language only as an adult.
The Story: In 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant, was mysteriously shot outside the home of the chief of police in Chicago. The incident was later explained as a lawman’s brave response to an anarchist plot. One hundred years later, Aleksandar Hemon finds himself fascinated by the story, and with the help of a photographer friend, he decides to investigate Averbuch’s life in America and Eastern Europe. But instead of writing a biographical pastiche, Hemon chooses to fictionalize both Lazarus’s life and his own, through the character of a contemporary Bosnian-American writer named Vladimir Brik. The result is a historical quest whose object is less certain than it first seems, yet far more transcendent.
Riverhead. 304 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1594489882
"The Lazarus Project takes a healthy swing at the all-inclusive, the gripping, at the truly audacious. It’s a book that manages to do what the best fiction does: It frames the public conscience of its own messy, changeful period. Hemon’s is a majestic talent." Darin Strauss
"Characters from Brik’s life—or versions of them—show up in Lazarus’s story. Even Brik himself makes a brief appearance. It’s a conceit that Hemon justifies through a series of meditations on the idea of resurrection that Lazarus, by his very name, evokes." David Leavitt
Los Angeles Times
"Hemon is immensely talented—a natural storyteller and a poet, a maker of amazing, gorgeous sentences in what is his second language. But in this book, he sets up a Chinese box structure that has its own constraints, which might not play particularly well to his discursive style." Carol Anshaw
"Hemon’s extensive research results in a beautifully rendered reevaluation of a previously [misunderstood] chapter in the history of immigration to America—[that is, in] the history of America itself. Like the fiction of Ha Jin … or Chris Abani, Hemon’s best work describes and defines what it means to be a new citizen in this land." Andrew Ervin
"With the Lazarus story line, which is believed to closely follow actual historical events, he’s done a convincing job. … 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." Bharti Kirchner
Reviewers unanimously praised Hemon’s prose; one critic remarked that Hemon never writes a boring sentence, even if, at times, a nonnative awkwardness shows. Reviewers were also happy to add Hemon to the long tradition of writers taking on English as a second (or third) language and making it their own. However, critics disagreed about whether Hemon chose the best structure for his tale. Some were impressed by the device of interweaving the Brik and Lazarus stories; others wished that Hemon had chosen one story line or the other. Nevertheless, no critic thought the book dull. Hemon’s prose and wit keep The Lazarus Project lively, and the story is no less compelling 100 years later.