Aleksander Hemon's new book is like a family photo album that spans the last hundred years and covers two continents. It is the immigrant story of diaspora, displacement, and despair, but all handled with an irony that captures the poetry of the text much as a camera frames images.
The irony is heightened by the performance of Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays, whose mannered, clipped delivery keeps events largely at arm's length (though paradoxically this treatment tends to reinforce the horror of the violent passages, where Hemon seems determined to make the reader viscerally experience the brutality of power used to oppress).
The story is based on the true case of the 1908 murder of a recently-arrived Jewish immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, at the hands of Chicago's chief of police. Another imagined narrative is that of Sarajevo-born struggling author Bric and his grant-funded journey from Chicago through East Europe to trace the story of Averbuch in reverse. It is a strength of Hemon's writing that both voices the heartbroken, outcast sister in 1908 and the somewhat self-absorbed writer of a century later ring true, as do the descriptions of turn-of-the-century Chicago and the more dilapidated corners of modern Chernivtsi. Mays manages to make the transition between both time periods almost imperceptibly, which compliments the tale's meshing of the past and present.But it is in Bric's narrative that the force of Hemon's tale comes through: the Lazarus project is about resurrection in more ways than one. As Lazarus' grieving sister must investigate her brother's past to make sense of his murder, Bric's journey unearths not only the bloody history of Europe's Jewish population the pogrom of Kishinev, Chicago's hostility towards immigrants but his own sense of self, his own identity as a man displaced from his country of birth and resituated in a depersonalizing western society. This tale is as much a story of belonging as a study of cultural rejection. Dafydd Phillips
On March 2, 1908, nineteen-year-old Lazarus Averbuch, a recent Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe to Chicago, knocked on the front door of the house of George Shippy, the chief of Chicago police. When Shippy came to the door, Averbuch offered him what he said was an important letter. Instead of taking the letter, Shippy shot Averbuch twice, killing him. When Shippy released a statement casting Averbuch as a would-be anarchist assassin and agent of foreign political operatives, he all but set off a city and a country already simmering with ethnic and political tensions.
Now, in the twenty-first century, a young writer in Chicago, Brik, also from Eastern Europe, becomes obsessed with Lazarus's story-what really happened, and why? In order to understand Averbuch, Brik and his friend Rora-who overflows with stories of his life as a Sarajevo war photographer-retrace Averbuch's path across Eastern Europe, through a history of pogroms and poverty, and through a present-day landscape of cheap mafiosi and cheaper prostitutes. The stories of Averbuch and Brik become inextricably entwined, augmented by the photographs that Rora takes on their journey, creating a truly original, provocative, and entertaining novel that will confirm Hemon once and for all as one of the most dynamic and essential literary voices of our time.
©2008 Aleksandar Hemon; (P)2009 Recorded Books, LLC
"There's pathos and outrage enough to chip away at even the hardest of hearts." (Publishers Weekly)
Rora is wonderfully bright and is the driving force behind the narrative.
The reader does a really good job at bringing the characters to life. The story itself is intriguing, and keeps you engaged. Having the book to look at the photographs while you follow along is well worth the purchase price, as the photographs are meant to be part of the book.
Could not have been more boring. A somewhat interesting parallel between current day terrorism and turn-of-the-century anarchism, but otherwise, this novel was a big yawn. I struggled to finish it. Maybe something was lost in the translation.
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