Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Not that much like Nabokov, Part One: Aleksandar Hemon, _The Lazarus Project_

NO FEWER THAN three of  the blurbs on the paperback compare Hemon to Nabokov, so there must be something to the comparison...but what? Both are Slavic, and both have fashioned an intriguing prose style without English being their mother tongue--but that's as far as it goes, so far as I can tell.

They are both literate and witty, but not at all in similar ways. They are both interested in dislocation, but Nabokov's is an exile-from-Eden kind of dislocation, Hemon's more the emigrant/immigrant kind of not-really-at-home anywhere dislocation.

Hemon does remind me a lot of Richard Powers, though, at least in this novel; like most of Powers's novels, it's braided, two independent yet interwoven strands of narrative. In one, based on an historical event in turn-of-the-century Chicago, Lazarus Averbuch, whose escape from the pogroms of Moldova has brought him to the U.S., is brutally murdered by the Chicago chief of police, who has jumped to the conclusion that Averbuch is an anarchist terrorist wishing  to assassinate him. The novel begins with this episode, then traces its consequences for Averbuch's friend Isador, who has to go into hiding, and his sister Olga, who has to deal with the various parties hoping to spin her young brother's death one way or another.

In the second strand, Vladimir Brik, a writer in circumstances a bit like Hemon 's (Bosnian, living in Chicago, an aspiring writer deft at getting grants) finds out about Lazarus Averbuch and decides to write a book about him. To that end, he and a photographer acquaintance (also Bosnian) travel to Averbuch's native territory, still caught in its post-Soviet-bloc turbulence and straitened circumstances. Possibly, the Averbuch strand in the novel is Brik's work.

As in Powers, the two strands criss-cross and illuminate each other in many ways, small and large. An opportunistic journalist named Miller figuires in both; the vicious shooting of the Averbuch strand is eventually mirrored in the Brik strand; in both, we have a bereaved sister.

And in both, dislocation matters. Averbuch, as a Jew, was an outsider even in his birthplace; in his adopted country, he is readily and fatally mistaken for a threat. Brik can never feel quite at home in Chicago, but once he is back in Bosnia, he cannot really pick up the thread of the lfe he left behind--too much has happened, to him and to Bosnia. The pain of this double dislocation shadows each strand of the book, very effectively.

It's a strong book. It's just not a Nabokovian book.

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