Friday, August 1, 2008

Antigone in Chicago (Books - The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon)

One morning in Chicago I had tiptoed to the kitchen with the intention of making some coffee. While customarily spilling grounds all over the counter, I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES. It was too late for recovery, for sadness was now the dark matter in the universe of still objects around me: the salt and pepper shakers; the honey jar; the bag of sun-dried tomatoes; the blunt knife; a desiccated loaf of bread; the two coffee cups, waiting. My country's main exports are stolen cars and sadness.

I just love this excerpt. The way Brik, the writer in Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project, is surprised into a realization about himself through this little domestic detail. Strong emotion bubbles through this book of alternating plots - the Jewish immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who is accidentally shot to death in a moment of panic in the Chicago Police Chief's house in 1908 and is then branded a dangerous anarchist to get the Chief and his family off the hook - and the contemporary writer in Chicago, a Bosnian immigrant, who goes in search of Averbach's story - returning all the way to Lazarus's and his own roots in Eastern Europe.

Sadness sits beneath Brik's loneliness in his marriage, because his American wife, a surgeon named Mary, cannot know who he is as a Bosnian. Anger about being the victim of pogroms and then outrage at finding similar anti-semitism in Chicago, bigotry that killed her brother, fills Olga Averbuch's soul. It becomes focused on getting her brother a proper Jewish burial (denied him by the city of Chicago, who unceremoniously dump his body in a pit, only to then have it stolen). Lazarus becomes useful to fundamentalist christians as a symbol of resurrection, to anarchists as a prop of their cause, to medical students as a source of organs, and to a Viennese immigrant lawyer, Herr Taube, as a way to get some fair treatment for the Jewish community in Chicago. Olga becomes a Jewish Antigone to Taube's Creon. Their face-off scene is, to my mind, the best thing in the book - so suffused is it with passion.

"I mourn the death of your brother with you. Fraulein Averbuch. I was brought up to believe that if we lose one Jew, we lose the world. And I suffer your loss not only as a Jew but also as one who believe in the rule of righteous law."

Olga becomes aware of the smell her body exudes - she scrubbed herself time and again last night but still feels beshitten.

"There are men in this city, Fraulein Averbuch, all well-established members of society, who are duly apprehensive about the current atmosphere, as it could easily lead to uncontrollable violence. Such a development would endanger what they have been working for for a long time and would likely impede the further profress of their less-fortunate brethren.


"What do you want from me?"

"This might be very hard for you to hear. Very hard." He retrieves the glass from the desk and shoves it under Olga's face. Bubbles are streaming upward from the sugar cube. She turns her face away from the glass. Taube sighs. "Please listen. We must quell the rumors that your brother's body is missing as quickly as possible."

"It is missing. My brother's body is missing."

"Please listen. We need to rebury him according to our customs in the full view of the public, before it is too late. We have to put it all away and go on with our lives."

"You want to bury him without his heart? How could you even begin to say something like that?"

"There are Hebrew religious leaders who will be glad to approve of the funeral; indeed, even to be present at it. And the assistant chief will now be glad to allow your brother's proper burial. He is basically a decent man, if too beholden to powerr. He has ralized that disorder and mayhem will not help him in his further pursuits."

He leans back in his chair, looks to the left and to the right, nodding. She shakes her head, first slowly, then fast, until the pins loosed and her hair unfurls and now it just whips around. The glass escapes Taube's grip and rolls under the chair, but he pays no heed to it.

"We have no choice, Fraulein Averbuch. It is a question of life and death."

"What makes you think I want to live? You killed my brother. You have been lying to me. You put him away with a shivah, without Kaddish. None of you brought me a meal. And now you want me to bury parts of my brother as my brother. Have you no shame, Herr Taube? Have you no soul?"

Brik interviews the head of a Jewish center in Chisinau in Moldova, as he tracks down the history of the Averbuch family, he asks her how she feels about the pogrom.

"How do I feel about the pogrom?"

"Yes. How do you feel about the pogrom?"

Silence. Then she said:

"That outburst of bestial anti-Semitism is indelibly stamped upon our national consciousness."

I chortled, but she was not kidding. I said:

"No, really. How do you - you, Iuliana - feel about it? What do you feel when you think about it? Anger? Despair? Hatred?

She wagged her head to show she did not like the question.

"See, I am actually Bosnian," I said. She did not react to the news. "And when I think about what happened in Bosnia, I feel this filthy, fury, this rage at the world. Sometimes, I fantasize about breaking the kneecaps of Karadzic, the war criminal. Or I see my self smashing someone's jaw with a hammer."


Once Mary lost a patient on the surgical table. He was a gang member taken down in a drive-by-shooting. The bullet was lodged in his frontal lobe; somehow he was conscious when they brought him in. He talked to her; he asked her for her name; he told her his - it was, unbelievably, Lincoln. But there was nothing she could do; he died under the knife. That night she sat in the living-room armchair as on a throne, staring at the same page of a People magazine for fifteen minutes before she passed out, her cheek on her shoulder, only to wake up and confront my questions: "How did you feel after he dies? What were your thoughts? Whereupon Mary got up, dragged her blankets to the bedroom like a gown train, and pushed the door in my inquisitorial face. I was enraged; I banged at the door and eventually slammed it open, as though I was breaking in, to find her in bed, turned to the wall, the blanket pulled up to her temple. "Don't you ever get angry?" I shouted. "You must get angry. You must hate somebody. What makes you so goddam different?" Later on I apologized halfheartedly, and so did she. "When a patient dies," she explained, rather unhelpfully, "I feel that he is dead."

I really felt that this book was not so much about the events of the murder and the writing of it, but rather about the currents that ran beneath them. The passions that run beneath angry mobs, the frightened wealthy bureaucrat when an immigrant with worn clothes and an unfamiliar smell walks to his door, the writer when he feels he cannot really know someone who he loves ever, the pogrom survivor, whether you're fleeing Cossaks' in the early 1900s or Karadzic in the 1990s, who has only just now been captured. When those feelings began to be unleashed, that's when this book really got going for me; when it stopped being about the writing and started to come from somewhere. Sometimes I feel like Hemon is just too amusing for his own good. I feel like he toyed with me. Like I had to get that his writing is some sort of achievement. Well OK - I know he emigrated here in 1992 and wrote his first story in English in 1995. I know he's a certified genius. I don't care. I don't want that on every page. I don't read books for that. Give me the story. Ultimately this is a very powerful one.

Here's my other post on The Lazarus Project.

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