A lot has been said about this book and this writer: it was runner up for the NBA, and he’s received a MacArthur grant and has been compared to Nabokov more times than Nabokov. So, I’m sorta just adding my voice to the choir: this is a really good novel. It combines an adventure story, a buddy novel, a historical fiction, and a potent reflection on immigration to the land of the allegedly free.
The book flows from the project and ambition of it’s narrator, Vladimir Brik: a Bosnian/American transplant who wants to write a novel based on a true (in the fiction) story about a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus who in the early 20th century escapes the Russian pogroms only to be shot by a Chicago chief of police. In pursuit of the facts, our narrator travels to Eastern Europe with his childhood friend Rora, who is, in my humble, the real star of the novel. Rora’s anecdotes, jokes, and suspiciously elegant personality keep alive a novel that is involved, at least ostensibly, with the past. The Lazarus Project switches from telling the story of the protagonist of Brik’s novel, to telling the story of Brik and Rora’s trip, to telling the story of Rora’s involvement in the intricate cloaking and daggering of war ravaged Sarajevo. As a result, it keeps the reader’s interest hooked–I read it in a few sittings–but at the same time has much to say about the role of stories and fictions in helping us process our tragedies, the fragility and the questionable genuineness of the “American Promise”, and the evanescent quality of cultural identity. Quite a feat.
Despite my admiration for the book and for Hemon, I have to get something off my chest: the comparisons to Nabokov are ridiculous. I’ve read almost everything the master wrote, much of it more than once, and I just don’t see the comparison. I hate to contradict James Wood, who sounds on the cover as if he prefers Hemon to Nabokov, but one of these guys is a good story-teller with an insightful, reflective bent, the other is a literary magician. More apt is the frequent comparison to W.G. Sebold. It’s an easy comparison in some ways, since LP and most of Sebolds books share the trick of having pictures interjected into the text to lend a sense of authenticity and character, but there is more to it. Both Sebold and Hemon are interested in roots and journeys to sniff out the origins of culture and person. Still, there’s something crystalline about Sebold’s prose that is lacking in Hemon. Hemon learned English, growing up a Ukranian transplanted to Bosnia, only relatively recently, and while it is unfair to say it shows–he’s a splendid writer and outpaces most native english writers easily–it kinda does now and again. Words are every once in a while made to do work they don’t easily do but that the OED might well suggest they are capable of. Sentences haven’t yet gotten the rhythm that they have, say, in Joshua Ferris’ work. Nevertheless, the guy is a top hand and will only get better.