The Constant Vanishing of the World
A Contrary review by Gregory Byala

	Since the publication of The Question of Bruno (2000), Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian expatriate, has become one of the most talked about voices in American fiction. His most recent novel, The Lazarus Project, confirms the literary promise that his earlier work invoked.  
At its core, all of Hemon’s work (The Question of Bruno, The Nowhere Man) ruminates on theintersection of history, memory, fiction, and the imagination. For Hemon, however, memory is not precisely was it was for Proust: an unconscious return. It is instead a willed activity, something that is . harnessed against the natural corrosion of time, or what Vladimir Brik, the protagonist of The Lazarus Project, elegantly calls “the constant vanishing of the world” (229). In the world that Hemon’s characters inhabit, everything collapses, either because it is destroyed physically (Yugoslavia, the body) or because there is nothing to secure it (memory, the past).
        The plot of The Lazarus Project runs largely in step with Hemon’s personal history, relating the attempts of the fictional Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian writer living in Chicago, to uncover the circumstances surrounding the life and death of the historical Lazarus Averbuch, a Russian Jew who escaped the pogrom of Kishinev a century earlier, only to be shot by George Shippy, Chicago’s chief of police. Half of the chapters imagine the events surrounding Averbuch’s murder, while the others center on Brik’s misadventures in the present, which include his complicated marriage, his attempt to secure a literary grant that will allow him to write his book about Lazarus, and his return to Eastern Europe in search of Lazarus’s origin. 
In real life, a phrase that one feels should be rendered in quotation marks, Hemon (like his fictional counterpart) returned to Eastern Europe, accompanied by his childhood friend Velibor Božović. Between each chapter, Hemon includes a photograph, culled from both the Chicago Historical Society and the portfolio of roughly 1,200 photographs that Božović took during their trip. The interaction between the photographic image and the written text reveals one of the novel’s central concerns, the status of truth. For Hemon, the photographic image opens up the possibility of narrative, largely because the moment that it records, that it purports to frame as history, is incomplete. Its truth must therefore be supplemented, rounded out by the imaginative capacity of narrative to find its way into the intimate spaces that history and the photographic archive have failed to retain.
	The type of resurrection that the title of the novel invokes is not physical, not a yearning for the body that has been brought into the grave, but cognitive, a desire to rekindle the memory of the dead who have been lost to time: the Jews of Kishinev, the victims of Sarajevo. Hemon’s metaphor reveals that historical reckoning is always a process in which the terrors of the past (the pogroms, the holocaust, the varieties of ethnic cleansing) both return and evaporate with remarkable consistency. The past and present are equally remote, revealed to us only through the narrative projects that we deploy against them. 
Throughout the novel, the stories of Lazarus and Brik come increasingly to resemble each other to the extent that Lazarus’s narrative begins to overflow the chapters that are devoted exclusively to him. The overlap is not merely one more in a series of mildly postmodern games that Hemon is accustomed to playing, but a result of the fact that history and myth are barely distinguishable from one another in a world that has no substantial access to the past. In the absence of historical consciousness, both Hemon and Brik propose the imagination. In its purest form, imagination is not beholden to history. It is free to find its own truth, even if that truth is destined to become another fiction that time will eventually render obsolete.
On the basis of their biographies and style, Hemon is often compared with Nabokov, though the comparison is slightly misleading. In tone and feel, The Lazarus Project most closely resembles Sebald’s Austerlitz and Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. In keeping with these novels, the flight of The Lazarus Project is regressive, towards a past that cannot be fully recovered and must therefore be invented. 

Gregory Byala is a Pennsylvania-based writer and a lecturer at Muhlenberg College.

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The Lazarus Project
Aleksandar Hemon
2008, Riverhead






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