The Lazarus Project
History and literary narrative are inextricably interwoven in MacArthur “Genius Grant”-winner Hemon’s latest work. Two stories are told: one is of Lazarus Averbuch, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant in Chicago, who had lived through the horror of the pogroms and refugee camps in Eastern Europe, only to die at the hand of the Chicago Chief of Police (“Shippy”) in March of 1908. The second story is that of the narrator, Brik, who is also an immigrant to Chicago, arriving in America in 1992 just before war broke out in his Bosnian homeland.
Brik’s obsession with the story of Averbuch—was he an anarchist? Why did he go to Chief Shippy’s house that morning?—leads him to retrace the steps of Lazarus and his sister Olga, as they left behind their disintegrating world for the promise of a better life in America. Brik takes along his fellow-Bosnian friend and garrulous photographer Rora, and they make their way through present-day Ukraine to Chernivtsi to Moldova and on to Sarajevo. During the journey, Rora regales Brik with accounts of the war in Bosnia, the heroes, the escapes, the deaths; Brik pieces together what he feels is the story of Lazarus and Olga, from the fragments he finds (or doesn’t) of their world.
There are layers of echoes between the two narratives: protagonists who will always be treated as perhaps-untrustworthy foreigners, who have hopes of creating better lives; the similarities between the early 20th-century treatment of outsiders and some of the current policies aimed to prevent terrorism in the U.S. also reverberate. This carefully-crafted work, along with its supporting photographs, is at once a fantastic tale of Eastern European life, a lesson in two centuries of (in)humanity, and an eerie reminder that those who don’t learn from past errors are condemned to repeat them.