In 1908 in Chicago, a young, poor Jewish immigrant comes to the door of the police chief to deliver a letter. Once inside, he is shot to death and branded as a dangerous anarchist to cover up what was probably the over-reaction of the police chief's jittery household to having someone of a different class and ethnicity in their home. Plus ca change. In present day Chicago, a young writer, born in Bosnia, wants to find out exactly what happened with Lazarus Averbuch, the murder victim, and begins researching a book about the subject. This writer is not Aleksandar Hemon, that is the author of The Lazarus Project, the book containing these two alternating stories. Hemon is a writer gushed about in such hyperbole by other writers and critics that I was afraid to read anything of his lest, if I wasn't instantly transformed into a unicorn, I wouldn't be disappointed. I am not a unicorn yet, but he is a word-smith of prodigious inventiveness. Not a sentence goes unglazed:
The late winter has been gleefully tormenting the city. The pure snows of January and the spartan colds of February are over, and now the temperatures are falseheartedly rising and maliciously dropping: the venom of arbitrary ice storms, the exhausted bodies desperately hoping for spring, all the clothes stinking of stove smoke. The young man's feet and hands are frigid, he flexes his fingers in his pockets, and every step or two he tiptoes, as if dancing, to keep the blood going. He has been in Chicago for seven months and cold much of the time - the late-summer heat is now but a memeory of a different nightmare. One whimsically warm day in October, he went with Olga to the lichen-colored lake, presently frozen solid, and they stared at the rhythmic calm of the oncoming waves, considering all the good things that might happen one day...
Not even the weather escapes his enthusiasm. His pen (or computer) doesn't seem to discriminate between information and poetry. Everything worth telling is worth telling beautifully. The result makes everything, particularly in the historical sections of this book, alive:
An enormous automobile, panting like an aroused bull, nearly runs the young man over. The horse carriages look like ships, the horses are plump, groomed, and docile. Electric streetlights are still on, reflected in the shop windows. In one window, there is a headless tailor's dummy, proudly sporting a delicate white dress, the sleeves limply hanging. He stops in front of it, the tailor's dummy motionless like a monument.
But it is also (I imagine) like being on acid, or some club drug, and never coming down. The modern-day sections are similarly baroque, but embittered. Here our fictional writer/narrator attends a fund-raising event for the Association of Bosnian-Americans and makes fun of both ethnicities:
Americans, we are bound to agree, go out after they wash their hair, with their hair still wet - even in the winter! We concede that no same Bosnian mother would ever allow her child to do that, as everybody knows that going out with your hair wet commonly results in lethal brain inflammation. At this point I usually attest that my American wife, even though she is a neurosurgeon - a brain doctor, mind you - does the same thing. Everybody around the table shakes their head, concerned not only about her health and welfare but about the dubious prospects of my intercultural marriage as well. Someone is likely to mention the baffling absence of draft in the United States: Americans keep all of their windows open, and they don't care if they are exposed to draft, although it is well known that being exposed to severe airflow might cause brain inflammation. In my country, we are suspicious of free-flowing air.
The results are at times very amusing, and I admire the talent. Hemon clearly loves language, but it is a very different brand of storytelling after just reading Tim Winton's Breath in which, despite very beautiful writing, the story was more important than the storyteller. Here it is the other way round. That may be because the storyteller is himself a character in this novel and because the acts of writing and remembering are in some way being remarked upon by the novel, I'm about a quarter of the way into the book and I'm not sure of that yet.
This is the second novel I have read this year by a writer born in Bosnia, who left during the 1992 war, moved somewhere else, adopted the local language, and now writes in it to great acclaim by the locals. The other was Sasa Stanisic's How The Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Hemon immigrated to Chicago and Sanisic to Germany. Both have a magic-infused, dreamy style and enjoy playing with form, but I found Stanisic's adventures in meta-fiction served his narrative better than Hemon's have (so far). And the voice of Stanisic's narrator was impassioned and naive while Hemon's is quite cynical. Still I want to learn what precisely happened in the Police Chief's home in the winter of 1908 and am interested to read on. The narrative is accompanied by photographs, some by a contemporary photographer named Velibor Bozovic, who is also given a fictional identity in the narrative, the other photographs are from the Chicago Historical Society.
I am also reading Proust and the Squid - a history of the evolution of reading and how the human brain evolved to accommodate the change from oral to written language. Perhaps I'll post on that tomorrow - I'm finding the subject matter interesting and the writing very fluid. We're also supposed to take in the huge Turner exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum today, if we don't get rained out.