The Lazarus Project, written by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Riverhead Trade, is a first-person narrative, written primarily from the point-of-view of Brik, a Bosnian immigrant who made a life for himself in Chicago. As an immigrant, he does a lot of writing about the experience, including a column in the Chicago Tribune. It’s through this that Brik discovers the story of Lazarus, an immigrant refugee who died in 1908—shot dead by Chicago’s chief of police in cold blood. Taking it upon himself to write Lazarus’s story, Brik starts by trying to earn a grant—kissing ass with Susie Schuettler, head of the Glory Foundation. How does Brik plan to do it? A picture of he and Susie dancing at Bosnian Independence Day in Chicago. Only the photographer is Brik’s old associate, Rora—an enigmatic figure from Brik’s teens. But in earning Rora’s trust for the photograph, Brik becomes enamored by Rora’s charm again—thus they set off together, following Lazarus’s footsteps from Chicago to the Ukraine, with one quick stop to the country that Brik once called home. Only Brik and Rora never expected what waited for them on their pilgrim’s path.
I’m not an immigrant. In spite of the fact that my name is unique collection of sounds that are in no way American, I was born in this country. My mother is a white woman from Nebraska who earned an associates in engineering because she thought it would pay better than being a mechanic. My father, on the other hand, was an immigrant. In the late seventies, before all the hassle that came with hostage crises and Middle Eastern conflicts, he left Shiraz, Iran (formally Persepolis) and migrated to America. He fell for my mother in their engineering class at Illinois Valley Community College and in his broken English, he attempted to move her to passion. It was in the cafeteria there that he first asked her out—and though my mother felt unsure about dating a man with deep brown skin, curly black hair, and a thick accent, she agreed to a date—she already had a child after all by a deadbeat dad and, in her own fucked up way, she didn’t want to be alone for the rest of her life. Though she knew that her brothers or even her own mother would never fully accept Reza, it didn’t matter—she felt committed to leaving them in their closed-minded ways, even if she inevitably returned to them long after her and Reza escaped—after Reza passed away. But that’s how they fell in love. Years later, I hung out in that cafeteria between classes, watching the IVCC lifers play euchre, listening to my friends talk about their favorite films, and for some reason people actually fucking ate there. In retrospect, it seems like the least romantic place to fall in love with someone. But hell, I don’t have a kid as far as I know. And I’m no immigrant either.
(IVCC, courtesy of the IV Leader, who used to publish my articles on the origins of various holidays. For some reason.)
Though Brik is our main character, we get a lot of the story from alternative points-of-view—primarily, his interpretations of the characters in the book he’s writing on Lazarus. Lazarus’s sister, Olga, his friend, Isador, and Lazarus, himself complete the picture according to Brik’s immersion into the material. It’s because the narrative is broken up this way that this novel never lulls on the existential tirades that Brik absently thinks on his long, eventful journey. The alternation also sinks us back into Chicago, far from the Euro-Trip of Brik’s endeavors, since Chicago plays as big of a role in his life as his home country of Bosnia. These presumptions follow Brik’s narrative thematically—Brik’s experiences are mirrored in the perceptions of the characters that he writes, as though they took form in the slower paces of his journey in his attempt to come to terms with the ambiguity of his future and identity. After all, Lazarus died a full century before this novel takes place—Brik fills in the experience of Lazarus, Olga, and Isador by drawing parallels to his own obstacles, thus engaging the audience in both his journey and the development of his novel as its portrayed for us. He even goes so far as to include people he meets in Lazarus’s story—filling the gaps with real people, in exploration of who they are in the context of who Lazarus was.
(Photo taken of Lazarus Averbuch after his death.)
Like I said before, I’m not an immigrant—but I’ve experienced a lot of the same symptoms synonymous with immigrants, as many first-generation Americans tend to. Detachment from society has been a major influence on my work—after all, I have no cultural connections. At once, I’m American and not American. Likewise, I’m not Iranian either. I don’t speak Farsi, I don’t celebrate Nawruz, and I don’t care about soccer. Worse yet, I’m not Islamic. Much as I’d like to understand more of my background, involving myself has only become more strenuous in the years since my father passed away, when I was just old enough to remember him. Another Iranian-American I know took the same route that I did as a way of making amends for that detachment—taking interest not in a nation so vilified as Iran, but in another alien culture that was easier to adapt to American mindsets—or at least it seemed that way. Japan became our adoptive country of interest—for me, it was easy. My first serious girlfriend was Japanese. We fell in love because we were alone as a result of being two first-generation Americans in an all-too-patriotic community, though she dumped me because her parents found me very non-Japanese. They questioned the vagrancy with which I survived in, making straight-As without a family to make proud. To them, I seemed like a loser for what I never began with—born without honor. What I concluded at the end was that I’m not Iranian. I’m not American. And I’m definitely not Japanese. I’m nothing. That’s the immigrant experience that I came away with then. Funny thing about that Japanese girl though—I met her at IVCC.
(Donna Kawaguchi and I on our first date at the Sears Tower, circa 2007.)
Brik’s wife, Mary, is the face of America in Brik’s eyes. Though she’s not overly Christian or patriotic, she represents America in Brik’s point-of-view because she’s the one thing from American life that he feels proud of. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, and she’s independent—it’s everything Brik ever looked for in a woman. Best yet, she’s American. But it’s that Americanness that Brik grows weary of. She wants to handle problems herself. She’s detached and rejects Brik’s affections much of the time. She wants children and a family, though she doesn’t believe that Brik is quite American enough to serve that purpose. Mary epitomizes Brik’s view on America because of the emotional distance that they share as a result of their differences. During the on-going narrative, we only get murmurs of Mary outside of Brik’s flashbacks. She isn’t part of Brik’s story anymore than America is after he leaves it to follow Lazarus’s path. Like America, she fades into a background conflict—much like the rest of the world perceives America. In the same capacity, the longer Brik wanders from Mary, the less he thinks about her and the United States as anything but a burden that he once escaped to. Their happiness is justified only in brief snapshots of the special moments they shared, but each shot is surrounded by a perpetual sense of unrest, until they venture on without each other.
I’ve met a lot of immigrants over the years and though all of them come from different backgrounds and cultures, a lot of them tell the same stories: It’s not what I expected, it’s hard to get by, I miss my home. Some of them don’t stay—like the tourists I see at work every day, they came to see how grand it was and left, compelled back to their origins by the chaos this city exudes. They chased a dream here and that very dream chased them back into the embrace of their family, where they were forced to start over or follow in the footsteps of their parents again. I often think about what I missed without my father in my life—if I’ll ever know what it’s like to be Iranian. I’ve read a lot of the literature regarding Persia, I’ve watched the popular films set in Tehran, and I’ve even followed a few Iranian-American comedians. I have a backlist on iTunes of Iranian rap that I tend to pass over, keeping it for culture’s sake as opposed to actually wishing to listen to it. The shitty part about being an Iranian-American is that the laws regarding trips back home, to visit your family, are fuzzy. If I went to see Shiraz, where my father lived and died, where his body has been laid to rest, I may never get to return to America again. Everything I worked so hard to make here would be lost—much like the ghost of my father that I’d be chasing there. Nonetheless, like the dream that he followed here to become an engineer in Chicago’s suburb of Aurora. I start to feel that I am both Iranian and American because of my struggles as a cultural vagabond. I’ve been trying to catch my dreams my whole life, to be a writer and make the important impacts that I think the world needs. But I’m trapped in my past, wondering if I’ll be so poetically buried in the land from where I sprung forth. The immigrant story is that entrapment between dreams and the grounding that made you—leaving safety behind in order to make something new. We’re detached because there is no common thread either here nor there. We’re detached because we chose our loneliness. Either Iranian or American, I may never know—but at least I’ll never be Japanese.
(Me and my friend, Aria, meeting Maz Jobrani. He’s pretty funny, you should check him out.)
Brik’s not the only story weaver in this novel—his friend, Rora, is too. Though Rora’s trade is photography, Rora keeps Brik at the edge of his seat on their journey by telling stories of his experience during the Bosnian War. Rora tells about his experiences with Rambo, a Bosnian freedom fighter, and Miller, Rambo’s journalist—and how the three of them struggled to survive in the war while going on wartime adventures. Rora paints Rambo as a modern-day Che Guevara with a blood-thirsty lust for power and Miller sounds more like an extreme example of a Gonzo journalist, out to capture the very edge of death that Rambo leaned over. All the while, Rora follows along taking photos. What struck me about these tall tales was how they relate to Brik’s own experiences—it’s a story that doesn’t involve Brik, but it’s about the struggle that Brik missed out on when he left Bosnia to come to America. It adds a new dimension to Brik’s identity crisis—the Bosnian he couldn’t be. Rora, with a life and past that exceeds Brik’s understanding, is a lot like Mary in that way too—Rora is Brik’s perception of Bosnia, while Mary is Brik’s perception of America. Though Rora is familiar and kind, so much happened in Brik’s absence that he may as well be a stranger, welcoming Brik because of Brik’s blood alone without giving him the deference of those that survived the bloodshed. Brik must recreate his home with only just stories and the news to craft his own idea of that world, because like how he is not American, he is not Bosnian either. Rora is the personification of that news, colored by Brik’s own ideal of what a true Bosnian is.
My friend, Nick, is a descendant of a Jew that survived the Pogrom to make her way to Chicago. He told me the story of how her family put her on a train at twelve or thirteen, to take her to a boat and eventually arrive at the new world—one where she could be safe. The amount of research that went into this book is amazing, but not so amazing as Hemon’s own exploration of the existential crisis that is the coming to terms with your own cultural identity—whether you’re one nationality or another, or you’re just born alone and will inevitably die alone. His point-of-view is so much like my own that it reminded me of the very same struggle that I endure every day. It’s as though I put the pen to paper myself and wrote this story without remembering it—only Hemon beat me to the punch. Nick, on the other hand, related to Lazarus because of the stories that he heard of how his ancestors first endured here. He saw an alternate reality for what could have potentially happened to his blood-line and it scared the hell out of him in its accuracy. On a lot of levels, this novel hits home, no matter where that home happens to be. This is the true story of an American dream.
The Riahi Rating:
About the publisher:
Riverhead Trade is pretty much the literary subsidiary of Penguin books. Though we know Penguin to publish a lot of literature, this is the ground-breaking, award-winning shit. You’re not getting in on this one without an agent—though if you do get in on it, you’re definitely on the right path.