Aleksandar Hemon, a Yugoslav of Ukrainian extraction, was in the US when war ripped apart his native Bosnia. Prolonging his stay, he taught himself to write stories in English. The Question of Bruno appeared in 2000 to much acclaim. Indeed, the hype put me off; how could he be worth those vast advances, all that elite American praise?
The stories are terrific. Hemon parlayed his experience into English that manages to be laconic, springy and brilliantly off-centre. It tastes unforgettable, like pickles or asparagus. He even brings off deadpan bookish jokes, like this: "For a long time I used to go to bed early, until my parents finally bought their first TV set."
In Nowhere Man (2004), Hemon transposed more of his life into episodes involving Joseph Pronek, a figure from the first book. With writing this good, more of the same was hardly a problem. Even so, one wondered if his phrase-making skill was at odds with the architecture needed for a novel.
By no means. The Lazarus Project is a success on a new scale, splendidly plotted and achieved. The first-person narrator is Vladimir Brik, "a reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries"; a Chicago Bosnian journalist who wants to write a book but lacks the nerve. He becomes fascinated by the real history of Lazarus Averbuch, a Russian Jewish immigrant shot by Chicago's police chief in mysterious circumstances in 1908. Thanks to a generous grant, Brik sets off to Europe on the trail of Averbuch and his own ancestors. His foil on the journey is Rora, an old friend from Sarajevo.
The book's structure is a delight. Initially, Averbuch's and Brik's tales alternate, with little interconnection. The narratives merge as Brik's writerly obsession takes him over. He sees American panic over Jewish "degenerates" and "anarchists" a century ago as forerunning today's paranoia about Islamists. A scummy journalist traduces the dead man and his sister, who is movingly persuaded by local Jewish leaders to abandon her search for truth.
This political allegory mirrors an intimate resemblance that unfolds in Europe. Jarred by the loss of his American context, especially the remoteness of his wife, the hitherto charming Brik becomes wire-tense, like poor Averbuch on his journey to Ellis Island. Ukraine, aimless and dilapidated, yields no answers. Conversation with Rora turns bad-tempered over the Bosnian war; Brik longs to know what it was like, while Rora feeds him tales that may be true or merely tall (like the whole novel). In Moldova – which, in a biting phrase, has "nothing but independence" – the comedy turns terminally black, then bursts in a clot of violence.
Hemon gets a lot of the topical world into his book. Like his master, the much-neglected Danilo Kiš, he is expert at outlandish lists. Here is Brik watching Rora flick the TV remote: "a herd of bicyclists climbing a hill; a man in a gray suit with an eternal wheat field behind him, reporting on the harvest prospects; Madonna slithering up the shimmering body of a female dancer... an Orthodox Darth Vader, wailing in Church Slavonic; Wolf Blitzer worrying about something imminent and irrelevant with the usual dorky earnestness; a beating heart inside an open, bloody-pink rib cage; a suited man delivering a speech to a crowd, rattling his hands above his head. Like chains." It's a rare style that can turn the tables as it brings home the bacon, unfailingly.
Mark Thompson's 'The White War: life and death on the Italian front' is published by Faber next month