Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Lazarus Project

I am halfway through Aleksander Hemon's The Lazarus Project. The book's structure reminds me of Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, a person on a mission of historical discovery, traveling to Eastern Europe to piece together a story - the novel alternating between the person's travels abroad and the historical story they are reconstructing. In the case of this novel, Hemon's narrator, Brik, a recent immigrant from Sarajevo living in Chicago, travels to Eastern Europe to retrace the story Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish immigrant who had fled pogroms only to end up killed in Chicago by the chief of police in 1908. Brik, like Foer, has a humorous sidekick with him along for the ride, and history, storytelling, and America are examined along the way. The book is really quite good, though the plot sometimes strains credibility. The thing making this book quite good are some astonishing passages. Hemon is a really great writer and how marked up my book is with stars is the proof of this, me not having felt the urge to star passages in a recent fiction book in ages. Below some of the passages:

One morning in Chicago I had tiptoed to the kitchen with the intention of making some coffee. While customarily spilling coffee 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 dessicated loaf of bread; the two coffee cups, waiting. My country's main exports are stolen cars and sadness. (73)


A human face consists of other faces - the faces you inherited or picked up along the way, or the ones you simply made up - laid on top of each other in a messy superimposition. When I taught ESL, I had students who would come to class with a different face every day; it took me a while to remember their names. Eventually, from a certain angle, I could see what was buried under their fleeting grimaces, I discerned the deep faces beyond their acting out the person they imagined themselves to be. Sometimes they would flash their new, American face: the raised eyebrows and the curved mouth perpetual worry and wonder. Mary could see no deep face of mine, because she did not know what my life in Bosnia had been like, what made me, what I had come from; she could see only my American face, acquired through failing to be the person I wanted to be. I did not know what shadows Rora saw, comparing my face and the one on the tombstone, but I did not think him crazy. Mykola Brik may have been someone who settled here - here in the narrow passage between my brain and my gaze - before I was ever born. Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes. (105-106)


Splendorous temples were built on the belief that death does not erase the traces of those who lived, that someone up there busies himself with keeping tabs, and is going to send down Mr. Christ or some other delusional prophet to resurrect all of the disintegrated nobodies. The promise is that even when every trace of your life vanishes absolutely and completely, God will remember you, that He might devote a speck of thought to you while reposing between putting up universes. An here they were, Helena and Mykola, rotting uninterruptedly under my feet. For a moment, I contemplated lighting candles for my distant relatives' souls, packed in a wooden box for enternity, roots pushing through their eye sockets. (107)


Often, before I went to sleep, I remembered - or I should say I tried not to forget. Before I passed out, I recollected particular moments in slumberous tranquility; I replayed conversations; I reflected upon smells and colors; I remembered myself as I used to be, twenty years before, or earlier that day. The ritual was my nightly prayer, a contemplation of my presence in the world.

It often got out of hand: possible stories sprouted from the recalled instants and images.
Part of the recollection ritual was admitting the defeat, recognizing that I could never remember everything. I had no choice but to remember just minuscule fragments, well aware that in no future would I be able to reconstruct the whole out of them. My dreams were but a means of forgetting, they were the branches tied to the galloping horses of our days, the emptying of the garbage so that tomorrow - assuming there would be a tomorrow - could be filled up with new life. You die, you forget, you wake up new. And if I cared about God, I would be tempted to think that remembering was sinful. For what else could it be, what could remembering all those gorgeous moments when this world was fully present at your fingertips be but a beautiful sin? (126-127)

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