Flush with cash from his MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Aleksandar Hemon comes across a rather stiff photographic portrait of Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old immigrant and alleged anarchist who was killed a century ago under suspicious circumstances in the foyer of Chicago Police Chief George Shippy’s home. Averbuch, dressed in his Sunday best, was stone dead when police posed him for the photo.
“It was an epiphany,” Hemon says over lunch at a neighborhood Mexican restaurant. “When I saw this photograph, it clinched it. I knew what I wanted to do with the book.”
The book would turn out to be “The Lazarus Project,” the parallel tales of Averbuch, who ends up in Chicago after surviving a pogrom in Kishinev (today Chisinau in Moldova), and Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian refugee who lands in Chicago in 1992, not coincidentally the same year Hemon, a native of Sarajevo, found himself marooned in Chicago. The fictional Brik sets off to retrace the story of the real-life Averbuch.
Hemon, who now lives in Chicago, is a relative newcomer to English, but his use of language is dazzling and his immigrant’s-eye view of American society is extraordinarily perceptive. New Yorker critic James Wood calls Hemon’s prose “remarkable for its polish, luster, and sardonic control of register.” He compares the 44-year-old Bosnian with Vladimir Nabokov.
According to Wood, Hemon “uses his astonishing talent to notice the world with a sarcastic, wily precision that is then put in tension with his love of the surreal metaphor.”
In “The Lazarus Project,” Brik observes that “stolen cars and sadness” are Bosnia’s “main exports.” Now we can add “major novelist” to the list. —By Tom Hundley.
The Chicago Tribune Literary Awards
Aleksandar Hemon will receive the Heartland Prize for fiction at 1 p.m. Nov. 2 in the First United Methodist Church, 77 W. Washington St.
Ticket information: chfestival.org or by calling 312-494-9509.