The Lazarus Project, By Aleksandar Hemon

A true murder mystery underlies this weird tale
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If it weren't so germane to his standing theme, it would seem crass to mention that Aleksandar Hemon was pushing 30 by the time he got around to learning English. One couldn't guess it from his exuberant prose: anyone who can catch a group-photo tableau as it "ungrinned and disassembled" is clearly beyond good and evil as far as English usage is concerned. But the experience of cultural displacement – specifically, of uprooting from Sarajevo and making a new life in Chicago, as Hemon did in 1992 – is his recurring preoccupation.

His stand-in for this second novel is Vladimir Brik, a frustrated writer who escaped Bosnia before the fighting broke out and now lives, resentfully, off his well-paid American wife while making "mental notes" towards a stalled novel. He latches on to the true story of Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Russian Jew who was shot dead by the Chicago chief of police in 1908. The killing was used to stir up anti-anarchist hysteria and Brik thinks he sees the present in the past, as well as himself in Averbuch. Yet whenever he sits down to write, "all I could produce was a costumed parade of paper cutouts".

There's a joke here but I'm not sure who is the butt of it. Brik's story and Averbuch's are told in alternating chapters, and the Lazarus bits really are as Brik says: a mawkish and monotonous cartoon. As horror piles on horror all drama dissipates and one struggles to detect any animating humanity in the murk.

Perhaps Brik would agree. He decides that the only way to breathe life into his novel is to visit Averbuch's birthplace in Moldova. An old photographer friend named Rora tags along, a fellow Sarajevan who spent Brik's moping years running a corpse-trading racket with a paramilitary pirate king named Rambo. He's a true raconteur whose laconic conversation discloses a world of swashbuckling adventure. Yet the pair find themselves instead lumbered with a world of wretched comedy, one of mini-skirted prostitutes on desolate farms and gangsters with biceps "like ostrich thighs". It makes for a bleak travelogue, but a very funny one. Its freewheeling format also suits Hemon's talent for drive-by satire far better than the historical reconstruction it notionally serves.