While it is obvious that writers are shaped and influenced by their environment, their upbringing and their experiences, it is not always possible to pick out single motifs or parts of their writing and relate them back to their lives (and, perhaps, not even that desirable). In some cases, though, authors make very particular contexts come to life in their writing; contexts which probably seem strange and unfamiliar to the readers at first and therefore might evoke special interest. Bosnian-born author Aleksandar Hemon is, I believe, one of these cases.
Hemon was born in Sarajevo in 1964, where he studied literature and began taking first steps towards a career as a writer and journalist. Just at the onset of the war in Bosnia, a cultural exchange brought him to Chicago where he eventually stayed and – very successfully, might I add – began to write in English. I am therefore tempted to wonder: how much of himself and of the history that influences him – the Balkan wars, his emigration from Bosnia and the immigrant experience – does Hemon allow to flow into his work, to become part of it? The answer to this question is less obvious than it might seem at first glance.
Let’s take a look at his 2008 novel The Lazarus Project: the protagonist Vladimir Brik is quite obviously modelled as the author’s alter ego. In 1992, right before the beginning of the war in Bosnia, he goes to Chicago for a cultural exchange. Observing the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo from afar, he then decides to stay in the US, thus becoming an accidental refugee. This is basically the author’s life as he himself recounts it in interviews and in his latest autobiographical work The Book of My Lives. As the title suggests, Hemon’s stories and even his biography consist of a multitude of voices and perspectives. He will not allow one single narrative about his life to take over and become the dominant aspect, overshadowing all the other facets of his identity. Instead, he fuses many perspectives and brings together different episodes in a cycle of impressions, which nonetheless, when put together as a book, create the impression of a coherent, well-composed whole. His many lives, so to speak – the one of the Bosnian immigrant being just one marginal part – all come together.
This is not by any means the only similarity between Hemon’s biography and his fiction; in fact, his writing constantly circulates around topics that reflect his experiences, but which also must seem familiar to most migrants. Many of his books contain startling stories about the war and his besieged hometown, but they also deal with cultural differences and the experiences of a dislocated outsider on a broader and more general level. So, at first glance, Hemon’s works and The Lazarus Project in particular do seem heavily influenced by the author’s personal situation and his biography. The complex and intricate narrative, though, invites readers to invest a second look which eventually leads to a different judgement.
While Hemon’s biography does resonate a lot in his writing, this does not happen in a simple, clear-cut way. He paints a picture that challenges the reader to believe that his fiction is a mirror of his life – only to disrupt this assumption by referring to issues that simply cannot be considered factual. In this way, he makes readers aware that they are reading a piece of fiction after all. So, while reading The Lazarus Project, one shifts constantly between two modes of perception that literature traditionally keeps separate: on the one hand, there’s the factual, biographical, historical mode, and on the other, a more genuinely literary and imaginatively invested narrative mode. The factual mode is supported by the references to places and nouns that, especially when combined, evoke connotations of war and its atrocities; “Bosnia”, “Sarajevo” or “siege”, for example, are words that have acquired a special status today.
The factual mode is supported by the references to places and nouns that, especially when combined, evoke connotations of war and its atrocities; “Bosnia”, “Sarajevo” or “siege”, for example, are words that have acquired a special status today
The book’s narrative structure also adds to the confusion between fiction and reality: the storyline of Brik is just one part of the novel. The second narrative strand tells the story of another immigrant, one century earlier, with whom Brik develops a lasting fascination: Lazarus Averbuch, a young Russian Jew, who had emigrated to Chicago after surviving the pogrom in Kishinev in 1903, only to be shot dead in 1908. His death occurred at the Chicago Chief of Police’s house under circumstances that still remain unclear. The story line about Brik is set in the present-day US, with society heavily influenced by an atmosphere of Islamophobia and anti-terrorism measures in the aftermath of 9/11. Though set a hundred years previously, the embedded narrative echoes the fearful atmosphere of the main plot with descriptions of a xenophobic society, beset with fears about anarchists. Brik researches Averbuch’s case for a book project and becomes captivated by the details of the young immigrant’s life and his tragic death.
The embedded narrative can be presumed to be the end product of Brik’s research. Interestingly, it does not only contain descriptions of factual details. Doing much more than rendering a historical account, Brik takes established facts and complements them with details and aspects that are clearly fictitious – like Lazarus’ emotions, for example, or the childhood memories no historian could possibly know about. This way, the (fictional) author Brik re-invents the historical parts that he cannot know about, connecting the known facts and bridging the gap with his very subjective and imaginative point of view.
This is also why I believe “project” to be a very fitting description of this work: it is indeed a project, inasmuch as it is a construct for which the author chooses a combination of historical, personal and fictional elements to express the overarching themes of exile, migration and loneliness. Instead of relying on just one side – either the historical, or the fictional – he combines both and, in doing so, accentuates the fact that any version of the past remains a construct. Consequently, all narrated accounts of the past are incomplete projects—projects that are nevertheless very much worth telling.
In the end, The Lazarus Project is not a purely fictional novel. Much more than that, it is a reflection on the possible relationships between history and fiction—and thus becomes a story about how to tell stories. Hemon proposes a new way of telling them: instead of enforcing an unambiguous difference between fiction and history, he reflects on history with the help of fiction.