When I finished Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, I felt a strong impulse to write to him. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to understand about him. Though I am sure our paths have never crossed, he seemed to me, at that moment, a brother – not exactly a spiritual brother – more like a brother in consciousness. Somehow, by some inexplicable, arcane map, we have both visited the threshold of the same landscape, seen the same view, and asked the same questions. It seemed to me that this Aleksandar Hemon, roughly the same age as I am, but with a cultural legacy that is very different than my own, had for a brief moment partaken in the same weighted mystery that engages much of my thought.
The Lazarus Project is the story of a journey that began when Hemon (or rather, Hemon’s alter-ego- character, but I’m just going to call him Hemon), came across the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Russian Jewish immigrant who was shot dead by the Chief of the Police in Chicago in 1908. Apparently the assailant took one look at the disheveled Jew who had appeared at his doorstep and assumed that he was a violent anarchist. By some form of cryptic alchemy, the story resonated with Hemon, a Christian Bosnian who had inadvertently found himself in the US at the onset of the war in Yugoslavia.
Perhaps Hemon, a Chicago-based immigrant himself, identified with Averbuch. Perhaps he felt as misunderstood and misplaced and out of synch. Perhaps the tale, with its racism and fear and violence and inane murder, reminded him of what was going on in his hometown, Sarjevo. For some reason, this long-forgotten and now irrelevant story angered him, ignited his imagination, drew him inside of it. To me, it feels like it cast a spell over him, no less, and compelled him to take a flight to regions once near and dear, but now happily forgotten, to Jewish hearts, beginning with that old favorite, Lvov, (or as it is now called Lviv) and then on to Czernowitz, or as it is known today, Chernivtsi, Chisinau (otherwise known as Kishenev, the famous pogrom town) Bucharest, and Sarajevo.
What did Hemon know about the places he was visiting? Was he aware, for example, that Martin Buber grew up in Lviv? That Joseph Roth went to university there? Was he aware that Paul Celan and Aharon Appelfeld weres born in Chernovitz? That Czernowitz was the site of the first international Yiddish conference, which was co-incidentally held in the same year as the Averbuch murder? Probably not. Or perhaps he knew, but they were not part of his trajectory. What was part of his trajectory was the Jewish Center in Chernivtsi, where he searched, in vain, for someone who could give him some first or second hand information about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom.
The book that came to mind as I read was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Hemon begins in the (figuratively) white sepulchral city of Chicago, lands in Lvov, and proceeds deeper and deeper into Averbuch’s story, moving backwards along his route in space and time. Of course, one hundred years separate Averbuch’s journey west and Hemon’s journey east, and the world he encounters as he makes his way is vastly different from the one that Averbuch left. Or perhaps it is just weary and ravaged and devoid of hope. And devoid of the Jews, or the vestiges of the Jews, that Hemon is looking for.
Like Charles Marlow, Hemon heads deep into the hidden heart of what is lost and concealed. Where Marlow journeyed through the comparatively wholesome jungles of Africa, Hemon’s odyssey involves disgusting hotels, reckless cab rides, and all the rampant corruption, decrepitness and faded Austro-Hungarian kitsch that the region has to offer, as he is all the while kept company by Rora, an ex-schoolmate/photographer who entertains him with tales of lawlessness, vice and murder amongst the warlords of Sarajevo.
I am intrigued, and impressed, that Hemon found it in himself not only to research, but to write a detailed fictional re-enactment of a pogrom. What is it about this quintessential Jewish catastrophe that lead him to invest his writing self its horror? What wells of empathy has he called up in order convey this particular moment in Jewish history? And why? After all, as the old Jew in Chernivtsi explains to him, “There were many pogroms in Russia before the Shoah, and then there was the Shoah”.
The book’s most powerful moment comes when he finds the Jews. Or rather, he finds their cemetery in Kishinev. “The leaves did not move as we brushed past them; the twigs did not break under our feet; there was not sun, though there was light, heavy and viscous. This was all, the world of the dead: Rozenberg, Mandelbaum, Berer, Mandelstam, Rosenfeld, Spivak, Urrman, Weinstien.” And then he comes upon the grave of Isaac Averbuch 1901-1913. He has finally found the key, the source, the undeniable proof that everyone, even a wretched, victimized immigrant, comes from somewhere.
“Tell me Iuliana,” Hemov says to his guide as they make their way out of the overgrown, crumbling, desecrated cemetery, “what is this world about –life or death?” It is a question that belongs to victims. To the broken. To the lost. Hemon has travelled down his river and arrived at this moment in order to ask it. He has come looking for the heart of the darkness in his soul and found it in a forgotten corner of Eastern Europe.
He, and his view of his sepulchral city, will never be the same.