Aleksandar Hemon Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Aleksandar Hemon
Photo: Sa Schloff

Aleksandar Hemon

An interview with Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon discusses The Lazarus Project

This is your third work of fiction, but the first one that was conceived and intended as a novel. Was this simply a natural progression in your work, or was it a challenge that you consciously set for yourself?
Well, Nowhere Man was elected a novel. On the cover of the Nowhere Man hardback there was no description of the book - I talked my editor into omitting it. The book was neither a novel nor a short story collection. But then everyone reviewed it as a novel and it came out in paperback as a novel and I guess it is a novel now.

As for The Lazarus Project, for the longest time I called it simply “the big book.” I could not, and would not, refer to it as “a novel” until I submitted it to my editor, so it became something I could describe as a novel very late in its production. It is pretty weird, I think, to set out to write a novel - unless it merely means a lot of pages - because that implies that one is simply writing down what has already been thought up and imagined, that the form precedes the work; I don’t know how to do that. I had no idea what would come out when I started writing The Lazarus Project, except that it would not be a short story. Then one day I just recognized it as a novel, it seems to fit the description and now the proposition is up for popular vote. Writing The Lazarus Project, I learned that you have to arrive at the form, you have to earn the right to call a book a novel.

What was it about the true story of Lazarus Averbuch that appealed to you? Why a Jewish immigrant like him and not a Bosnian or Eastern European gentile like yourself or your narrator?
What initially appealed to me was the tragedy of his immigration to America. He had survived a pogrom, spent some unpleasant time in refugee camps, and came to Chicago to be killed by Chief Shippy, after only 7-8 months of being here. The American Dream did not work out for him at all. His story was edited out of that grand narrative.

I could see no reason to turn Lazarus into someone “like myself.” First of all, I wanted to retain--to the extent that that is possible in a work of literary fiction--his historicity. The killing of Lazarus Averbuch did happen, even if a lot of stuff in my book did not “really” happen. The photos of the dead Lazarus--the heart of the book--are so haunting because they document that he did live and he did die.

Second, at the time of the Averbuch affair there was ubiquitous pseudoscientific discourse--the early 20th century is the high point of phrenology and eugenics--that identified many immigrants as racially inferior degenerates biologically inclined toward anarchism. The fact that Lazarus was a poor Eastern European Jew made him a perfect anarchist in the eyes of the law-abiding American public.

Third, I do believe in a sort of immigrant solidarity. I am not a Jew, but I was an alien resident--and often feel as one--as are many of my friends and family members. It has been easy to identify with his or his sister Olga’s loneliness and anger.

How did you research the life of Lazarus Averbuch, the Chicago of a hundred years ago, and real historical figures like Chief of Police George Shippy?
The main source was “An Accidental Anarchist” (Rudi Publishing, 1998) a book by Walter Roth and Joe Krauss, although I significantly diverged from--indeed distorted--the (true) story Roth and Krauss told. I also spent many hours in the archives of the Chicago Historical Society browsing through old newspapers. I looked at hundreds of photos from that era. Then at some point I stopped researching, started imagining and then let it all merge into a story.

This is your first book since you won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” How has receiving the award affected your life and your work? Was it anything like what happens to Brik after he wins a “Susie” award?
Actually, a Guggenheim fellowship allowed me to go on a research trip to Eastern Europe. By the time I received a MacArthur, I was up to my neck in The Lazarus Project. The MacArthur made everything much easier, obviously, allowing me to remove myself from Chicago for a little while, which felt necessary for a number of reasons, and finish the book.

Brik makes a direct connection between the anti-immigrant fervor of the early twentieth century and today’s so-called war on terror. What is the link between them?
I recently read a quote from a supporter of Tom Tancredo--the maniac xenophobe presidential candidate. Here it is (from “Return of the Nativist,” The New Yorker, December 17, 2007): “Some of these people [immigrants] may be coming in here to get jobs washing dishes, but some of them are coming in here to hijack airplanes… But I can’t tell Jose Cuervo from the Al Qaeda operatives by looking at them, because they cut their beard off. It’s like trying to get fly manure out of pepper without your glasses, you know? I mean, not a racist thing, but they’re all brown with black hair and they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Arabic and Spanish, so if they don’t belong here and they don’t come here legally, I want to know who’s here.”

I love it that he felt compelled to establish he was not a racist.

This kind of patriotism--which is at the heart of the war on terror--is very much akin to what was expressed in a 1908 editorial cartoon I ran into: an enraged Statue of Liberty kicking a cage full of foreigners, whom you can recognize as such because they are dark-faced, curly-haired, hook-nosed and are clutching bombs and knives. The caption says “Enough.”

The notion of immigrants as foreign bodies contaminating America is as old as it is persistent, and it is closely related to the fantasy of American innocence and inherent goodness. The war on terror activates and exploits this idea.

American innocence — or rather, Americans’ conception of their own innocence — is a major theme here, especially as it plays out in the relationship between Brik and his American neurosurgeon wife, Mary. What is it about American innocence that is so disturbing to Brik? What is it that Americans don’t understand, in his view, about evil and the limits of good intentions?
Around the time of the Abu Ghraib revelations, I went to see my physician, who is the kindest, nicest American woman. I was devastated by the Abu Ghraib pictures. They recalled the camps in Bosnia in which Bosnian Muslims were tortured and killed much in the same manner as Iraqis were in Abu Ghraib, with plenty of sexual humiliation, as though both the Americans and the Serbs read the same torture manuals, the same studies on “the Muslim mind.” I talked about it all with my physician and she was, of course, appalled, but then she said: “To think that even Americans can do such things.” For her, it seemed, Abu Ghraib was possible only because Americans somehow descended to the level of the rest of the world. The Abu Ghraib torturers became all too human, as it were, they forgot they were saintly Americans. It is a fascinating, fantastic notion--that moral evolution is most advanced in this country, that Americans are incapable of crimes against humanity, because America is the high point of humanity.

The immigrant experience has long been one of the great preoccupations of American literature, and it has been reinvigorated in recent years by a number of writers from all over the world who have come of age in an era of globalization. In the case of you and your work, there is the added element of coming from a country torn apart by a war. Is it possible for an immigrant like Brik — who is not sure where he belongs, who is overwhelmed by sadness and rage and guilt — to ever integrate fully into American life?
What is American life? Is it devoid of sadness and rage and guilt? I bet that living through the depredations of the past eight years, for example, resulted in substantial deposits of American sadness, rage and guilt. Indeed, it seems to me that sadness, rage and guilt in various forms are essential ingredients of American life.

I cannot imagine a life--American or not--that does not exist in some sort of a conflicted, historically troubling and troubled space. (Perhaps that is the limit of my imagination.) So at the beginning of the book Brik, with his sadness and rage, is to a large extent already integrated in the American life. And that is precisely his problem.

There is a powerful and complex Biblical resonance here, since you explicitly invoke in your title and throughout your novel one of the most memorable passages from the New Testament, in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. With the book he is intending to write, Brik is overtly trying to resurrect Lazarus Averbuch, to tell his true story and render justice to him. Yet Brik is a non-believer who makes fun of the figure he calls “Mr. Christ” and “the nailed gymnast.” He even questions whether Jesus did Lazarus a true service by resurrecting him. Can you discuss this?
Let me say that I am an atheist. I find religion anthropologically and culturally interesting, but I also find that it is vile and ridiculous as a means of resolving existential problems of human beings. I think that a sustained, rational argument can be (and should be) mounted against religion. Brik, on the other hand, does not build a sustained argument--he is simply angry. Eschatological questions come up as he thinks about Lazarus and death and listens to Rora’s war stories. His agnostic anger is a function of his character.

Why was it important for Rora, the photographer, to be in the novel? Why is it that Brik loves looking at Rora’s pictures but doesn’t want to be in them?
A photo of Brik is indeed in the book.

Photography was always at the heart of this book. The pictures of the dead Lazarus held up by a police captain were so astonishing to me when I found them that I instantly decided to have them in the book. But once that decision was made, the question was, what stories could the photos tell? What can we know about others, the past, the world? How can we access all that through stories, histories, photos? And that then became one of the things the novel is about.

Rora is a counterbalance to Brik. Brik is a navel-gazer, a would-be philosopher and historian, someone who has to process the sensations and information before he understands what is happening around him. Whereas Rora is a storyteller and someone who interacts instantly, with or without his camera, with the world around him.

In the book you’ve included more than twenty photographs, many by your real-life friend, Velibor Božovi?. Why? And naturally, the question arises, how closely is Rora based on Božovi??
There are twelve photos of Božovi?’s. The rest are from the Chicago Historical Society Archives. (But there are a lot more Lazarus Project photos at www.veliborbozovic.com)

I can’t remember when exactly, but very early on I knew that I would have photos in the book and that one of the characters would be a photographer. So when Velibor and I went to Eastern Europe for the Lazarus research trip, Rora was already present as a character. Velibor shot some 1,200 photos on this trip, knowing full well that I would use them in my book. Visiting places that Brik and Rora visit, we would discuss and imagine what Rora would do or shoot there. Rora is a collaborative character. He has absolutely nothing to do with Velibor, who could not be more different than Rora. Velibor, for instance, does not talk much.

Your narrator talks about the differences in attitudes toward storytelling in Bosnia and Americ
You write in the novel: “Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it as your own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth, and nothing but the truth — reality is the fastest American commodity.” How does this relate to your own idea of what fiction is?
I don’t like the word fiction. It is a marketing description, a bookselling label. It does not relate to anything I like in literature. It equates airport novels with Kafka. It tells the reader how she or he should approach the book. The use of the word perpetuates a situation in which “non-fiction” is more “true” than fiction. And it relegates Shakespeare and poetry to the shelves in the far corner of the bookstore.

I can tell you what literature is, though: it is human experience in language. That does not only mean that it describes or records human experience, but also that it imagines it and creates it. Stories create characters: Homer created the siege of Troy, Shakespeare imagined Hamlet, and Saul Bellow imagined Auggie March. The human knowledge formed and deposited in literature is unavailable otherwise. What is valuable in literature is not the quality of information about the past or the present. What matters is the intensity and depth of experience of reading and imagining other lives, unlived by the reader.

I believe that literature has a unique, close relation to our human realities simply because it cannot exist outside language, as we cannot understand our lives, our past and future, outside language. Language is always real, it always exists.

As for reality, it is very hard to have access to it, to see what it is these days. Nabokov said that reality is a word that should never be used outside quotation marks, and that has never been more true than it is in this country today.

Interesting Link: A podcast in which Aleksandar Hemon talks about The Lazarus Project and Love and Obstacles.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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