Excerpt from The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Lazarus Project

by Aleksandar Hemon

The Lazarus Project
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  • First Published:
    May 2008, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2009, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Responding to the siren smell of warm bread, he walks into a grocery store at Clark and Webster—Ludwig’s Supplies, it is called. His stomach growls so loudly that Mr. Ludwig looks up from the newspapers on the counter and frowns at him as he tips his hat. The world is always greater than your desires; plenty is never enough. Not since Kishinev has the young man been in a store as abundant as this: sausages hanging from the high racks like long crooked fingers; barrels of potatoes reeking of clay; jars of pickled eggs lined up like specimens in a laboratory; cookie boxes, the lives of whole families painted on them—happy children, smiling women, composed men; sardine cans, stacked like tablets; a roll of butcher paper, like a fat Torah; a small scale in confident equilibrium; a ladder leaning against a shelf, its top up in the dim store heaven. In Mr. Mandelbaum’s store, the candy was also high up on the shelf, so the children could not reach it. Why does the Jewish day begin at sunset?

A wistful whistle of a teapot in the back announces the entrance of a hammy woman with a crown of hair. She carries a gnarled loaf of bread, cradling it carefully, as though it were a child. Rozenberg’s crazy daughter, raped by the pogromchiks, walked around with a pillow in her arms for days afterwards; she kept trying to breast-feed it, boys scurrying at her heels hoping to see a Yid tit. “Good morning,” the woman says, haltingly, exchanging glances with her husband—they need to watch him, it is understood. The young man smiles and pretends to be looking for something on the shelf. “Can I help you?” asks Mr. Ludwig. The young man says nothing; he doesn’t want them to know he is a foreigner.

“Good morning, Mrs. Ludwig. Mr. Ludwig,” a man says as he enters the store. “How do you do today?” The little bell goes on tinkling as the man speaks in a hoarse, tired voice. The man is old, yet unmustached; a monocle dangles down his belly. He lifts his hat at Mrs. and Mr. Ludwig, ignores the young man, who nods back at him. Mr. Ludwig says: “How do you do, Mr. Noth? How is your influenza?”

“My influenza is rather well, thank you. I wish I could say the same thing for myself.” Mr. Noth’s walking stick is crooked. His tie is silk but stained; the young man can smell his breath—something is rotting inside him. I will never be like him, thinks the young man. He leaves the cozy small talk and walks over to the board near the front door to browse through the leaflets pinned to it.

“I could use some camphor,” Mr. Noth says. “And a new, young body.”

“We’re out of bodies,” Mr. Ludwig says. “But we do have camphor.”

“Worry not,” Mrs. Ludwig says, cackling. “This body will serve you well for a long while.”

“Why, thank you, Mrs. Ludwig,” Mr. Noth says. “But do let me know if some fresh bodies come in.”

Next Sunday at the Bijou, the young man reads, Joe Santley stars in Billy the Kid. The Illinois Congress of Mothers offers a symposium on “Moral Influence of Reading”; at the Yale Club Dr. Hofmannstal is talking on “Shapes of Degeneracy: The Body and Morality.”

The camphor jar and hat in his left hand, Mr. Noth struggles to open the door with his right one, the stick moving up and down his forearm. Mrs. Ludwig rushes over to help him, still carrying the bread, but the young man reaches the door before her and opens it for Mr. Noth, the little bell joyously jingling. “Why, thank you,” Mr. Noth says and attempts to lift his hat, the stick poking the young man in his groin. “Pardon me,” Mr. Noth says and walks out.

“How can I help you?” Mr. Ludwig says from behind the counter, even more coldly, for the young man is much too loose and comfortable in his store. The young man returns to the counter and points at the rack with lozenge jars. Mr. Ludwig says: “We have all kinds of flavors: strawberry, raspberry, menthol, honeysuckle, almond. Which would be your pleasure?” The young man taps his finger on the jar with nickel-sized white lozenges, the cheapest kind, and offers a dime to Mr. Ludwig. He has money to spend on pleasure, he wants to show them. I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.

Excerpted from The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon, Copyright © 2008 by Aleksander Hemon. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Books, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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