- Double Visions and Aesthetics of the Migratory in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project
An old photograph in a cheap frame hangs on a wall of the room where I work. It’s a picture dating from 1946 of a house into which, at the time of its taking, I had not yet been born… ‘The past is a foreign country,’ goes the famous opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, ‘they do things differently there.’ But the photograph tells me to invert this idea; it reminds me that it’s my present that is foreign, and that the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost city in the mists of lost time.—Salman Rushdie1
With their memories permanently on overload, exiles see double, feel double, are double.—Andre Aciman2
The detection of truth is the necessary goal of all serious literature, but the entire enterprise nonetheless remains an impossible business.—W. G. Sebald3
Aleksandar Hemon’s recent novel, The Lazarus Project (2008),4 exemplifies a migrant consciousness epitomized by a fractured yet facilitating perspective instigated by the rupture of migration.5 I will explore the ways in which the fragmented consciousness of the migrant finds expression not only in the subject matter of Hemon’s novel, but also in its structure, which is characterized by a series of dualities, ruptures, and fractions. As such, the novel illustrates both the “experiences of transition as well as the transition of experience itself into new modalities, new art work, new ways of being” (Durrant and Lord 12).6 Rupture and fragmentation are introduced by Hemon through the inclusion of photography within the narrative structure, initiating a dual—verbal and visual—storyline. Given that photographs inherently embody rupture and fragmentation—by means of their subject-matter as [End Page 215] well as by their unique representation of time—their inclusion within the framework of the novel underscores the concept of rupture as a central theme of Hemon’s work.
Hemon further explores the rupture lying at the heart of the migratory experience through the creation of a dual time frame, divided between the early twentieth century (the historical story of Lazarus Averbuch as imagined and narrated by Vladimir Brik) and the post-9/11 moment (the fictional story of Vladimir Brik, and his research of Lazarus Averbuch’s history). The split time frame is echoed in the structure of the novel, which is divided into alternating chapters, ‘historical’ chapters relating Lazarus’s life, death, and its aftermath, and contemporary chapters, narrating Brik’s experiences while researching Lazarus’s life. Hemon’s introduction of two time frames, featuring two displaced ethnic Europeans relocated to Chicago, is another manifestation of his fractured yet enhancing consciousness, while it simultaneously facilitates contemplation of issues seminal to the migratory consciousness, such as memory, loss, dislocation, and the ever elusive question of what constitutes home. Subsumed within this fractured time frame is the traversing of the boundaries of fact and fiction, explored through the alternate storylines, which blend historical anecdote (Lazarus Averbuch’s history) with fictional accounts (Brik’s story) and create further parallels and dualities between narrator (Brik) and subject (Lazarus).
Significantly, the author, Hemon, shares many biographical details with his narrator, Vladimir Brik. Both are natives of Sarajevo and of Ukrainian Christian origin (yet agnostic); both were stranded in America when war broke out in former Yugoslavia and worked as teachers of English to foreign students; both write a column in a local paper, marry American women, and live in Chicago. Yet most pertinently, in a meta-fictional twist, both author and narrator are researching and writing a story about the historical figure Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish man who migrated from Europe to Chicago in 1907, following the Kishinev Pogrom (1903). On March 2, 1908, for reasons unknown to this day, Lazarus went to the home of George Shippy, the Chief of Police of Chicago, where he was shot and killed on the spot. In a report given on the same day, Shippy claims to have identified Lazarus as a foreigner (a term that since the Haymarket Massacre was practically synonymous with ‘dangerous anarchist...