Much to my surprise, I found myself in Mostar, Bosnia last June. We had planned a trip down the coast of Croatia and when the chance to head into Bosnia for a day popped up, we all jumped at it. The other option was to head a touristy island. I’m sure it would have been beautiful. I may never know. But Mostar offered a more compelling scenario, to walk around a place so recently war-torn. Even our children (then ages 15 and 12) found the trip worthwhile, to visit a city now working hard to get along and, by all appearances, doing a good job. (Recent headlines suggest the edges are fraying again. Let’s hope not.)
Mostar plays a role in “The Lazarus Project.” Having been to Mostar-and across a small part of Bosnia to reach the country’s second-largest city-helped as I read. But I’d recommend “The Lazarus Project” to anyone who relishes unique writing styles. I ran across this quote from Aleksander Hemon (on abc.net) and I think he says it well:
“It’s not just about the meaning, it’s about the sounds, and then also the recognition of patterns which to me as a reader elevates the experience of reading to a different place. So the writing is never just descriptive but it’s evocative, there’s something trance-like about it, there’s a particular kind of trance when reading. This is what I pursue.”
There’s a sort of stranger-in-a-strange-land quality to “The Lazarus Project.” The novel follows two threads. The first is the journey of a Bosnian-born writer living in Chicago who heads to Eastern Europe and ponders deeply (and poetically) about his own disassociation with America. The second is the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe in 1908. Lazarus was shot and killed by Chicago’s chief of police inside the chief’s home. (The Lazarus sections are based on history.)
It’s the writer’s interest in Lazarus and what happened that propels “The Lazarus Project” as the writer, Vladimir Brik, heads to Europe to uncover the young man’s roots. Brik brings him with a photographer and the two men encounter Bosnia today, rough and rugged and brutal. Brik is supported on his mission by a grant. He’s supposed to produce a book.
So Brik heads off with no heavy deadline or intense feeling of obligation; he drifts and imagines and wonders if he’s doing the right thing. (This description sounds fairly heavy; it’s not. There are jokes and humor throughout, though just in brief bursts). Brik wonders about his marriage to a highly-regarded neurosurgeon. Okay, he wonders about most everything and processes what he sees in a quite poetic way. He waffles, he broods, he takes it all in-the good, the rough, the rougher. He considers following a path of “orgasmic selfishness” and also imagines going through the “righteous processes of self-doubt and self-realization” that might yield “moral insurance
Brik looks for the places where Lazarus was raised, probes for the moods and attitudes that existed at the time-and ultimately finds those moods and attitudes to be timeless. He’s looking for loss and he doesn’t have to look far.
The ending of “The Lazarus Project” is a shock. There is no build-up to the devastating flash of violence. It just happens, as simply and plainly as picking up a cup of coffee (an easy metaphor since there is so much coffee-drinking throughout). And that thought brought me back to Mostar, thinking: this could all happen again right here so quickly and with no build-up. Just….bang. It could start all over again. Right here. Or, really, anywhere.