Aleksandar Hemon, 2008
the ninth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Andrew Ross
The backstory of this novel is that Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian writer of Ukrainian ancestry, finds himself in America right as Yugoslavia collapses into civil war. Unable to return home to Sarajevo, he settles in Chicago and eventually marries a woman with the conspicuously unmarked name of Mary Field. Mary is a neurosurgeon and thus brings in the vast majority of the household's income; Vladimir, increasingly desperate to pull his own weight, gets a grant to return to Eastern Europe and do research on Lazarus Averbuch, a non-fictional refugee from a pogrom in what is now Moldova. In 1908, Averbuch, for reasons unknown, knocked on the door of Chicago's chief of police, who proceeded to gun the young Jewish immigrant down because he thought Averbuch looked like an anarchist.
There are lots of things I could say about The Lazarus Project, but I find that my thoughts keep drifting to this map:
In a lot of these articles I wind up arguing against American exceptionalism, but of course I've internalized American exceptionalism to a great extent myself. One form that takes is subconsciously thinking that America lies within a bubble of safety that keeps things from going too far wrong. Yes, we have cities full of kids who don't get fed properly and need free school lunches… but we don't have encampments of skeletal children with flies on their eyes. Yes, the rentiers' successful fight against American labor is entrenching a class of have-nots with dwindling opportunities to escape from dismal lives of unrewarding scutwork… but U.S. workers aren't cooped up in vast dorm complexes in between twelve-hour shifts, forbidden to talk to anyone, and making less in a month than I used to make in an afternoon. Yes, we have a political party that is actively working to deprive women of their reproductive rights… but American women aren't flogged in the streets for showing their hair. Those are the sorts of things that happen Over There. And geography seemed like a metaphor for this. Like, yes, we have deserts here, but Over There they have the alien hellscapes of the Empty Quarter and the Sahara, while we have the Mojave, which is full of Del Tacos. And yes, there are places here where it gets pretty cold, but Over There they have Siberia, a gulag-dotted polar wasteland on a continental scale, while we have North Dakota and grandmothers writing newspaper reviews of the Olive Garden. But then I go to geography class, and here's this map that takes prosaic locales like Denver and Spokane and overwrites then with names like "Mongolia" and "The Kirghiz Steppes" that call to mind mare's-blood-drinking hordes sweeping across exotic lands ending in -stan. And that got me thinking about how, if the U.S. and Over There are geographically more similar than I had thought, might they not be more similar in other ways as well?
It is really something to think that someone could escape from a pogrom in Kishinev — out in that distant, scary part of the world where pogroms happen — and travel over 5000 miles to the safety of America, only for racist hysteria to claim his life at 2131 N. Hudson Avenue in Chicago, Illinois — less than ten miles from my old dorm room at Northwestern. Then again, The Lazarus Project is a product of the first decade of the 21st century, and as such it's hard to miss the parallels between the hysteria over anarchism a hundred years earlier and the contemporary hysteria over terrorism. When the Chicago police beat Averbuch's neighbor to death because, as Averbuch's neighbor and another Jew, he must know something about Averbuch's (nonexistent) anarchist plot, it can't help but bring to mind similar murders of innocent cab drivers in Afghanistan by U.S. troops or of Sikhs in the U.S. by ignoramuses under the impression that "turban = terrorist." The question is whether this sort of thing could mushroom into true genocide, here and now. And this, I think, is where Vladimir Brik comes in.
One of the recurring motifs in The Lazarus Project is that people keep assuming that because Brik is interested in Lazarus Averbuch he must be Jewish. One thing I learned in years of grading standardized test essays is just how widespread the notion is that genocide is a practice that has uniquely menaced the Jews. Or that, okay, maybe other groups (e.g., any number of indigenous peoples of the Americas) have been subjected to campaigns of extermination, but that was ages ago — even the Holocaust is quickly receding out of living memory. Or that, all right, maybe genocide has continued into modern times, but only in dark corners of the world like Cambodia and Rwanda and Darfur, not anywhere, y'know, civilized. But Brik is from Bosnia, where thousands of Bosniaks — Muslims, not Jews — were slaughtered in the name of "ethnic cleansing" and thousands more were forced into rape camps. This wasn't in some distant jungle, but in a European country whose capital had recently hosted the Olympics. And it wasn't in some distant epoch, but in the middle of the 1990s. There was already a Foo Fighters record out during the Srebrenica massacre. Friends was in reruns. So if Lazarus Averbuch's life suggests that It Can Happen Here, and Vladimir Brik's suggests that It Can Happen Now, the next question is whether it can happen here and now.
It occurs to me that, as much as I marveled at how close Averbuch's murder was to the place I called home for 9½ months, in another sense it was a world away: for the vast majority of my time in Evanston, I never went to Chicago because I was mugged the second time I went down there. The world of the average American might well have seemed like a bubble of safety and affluence to someone transplanted there from 1903 Bessarabia — but that was not the world into which actual immigrants from 1903 Bessarabia stepped. They wound up in the poorest neighborhoods of the inner cities, and I honestly have no idea whether those constitute any improvement over their Old World counterparts. The novel makes it pretty clear that they didn't for Lazarus and Olga Averbuch. And if they don't, then that means that Over There isn't an ocean away, but just down the road.
One more thought that really doesn't connect to the above: after the rest of this book has faded from my memory — which may not take very long, given how my mind is going — the one bit I'll remember is probably one of the parenthetical remarks in Brik's description of Christmas at the Fields':
At the end of the novel Brik decides to stay in Sarajevo, and this line pretty much encapsulates why. Another line at the end of the book does as well, when Brik spends a morning in Sarajevo and observes that "Nobody asked me where I was from nor expressed their admiration for my exotic accent and alien culture." But that apple pie line really captures the queasiness of never sharing enough defaults with those around you for those aspects of yourself that you consider you to come to the fore — of instead always having to play the foreigner, forever forced to feign wondering admiration for some elderly woman's terrible Middle American cooking, because no matter how long you stay, your relationship with this place and these people will always be that of guest and host.