July 2008

Richard Wirick


An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

Alexander Hemon’s second novel, The Lazarus Project, involves a modern, struggling Chicago writer whose column for an alternative weekly leaves him at the financial mercy of his wife, a medical doctor. Brik becomes obsessed with the 1908 murder of Lazarus Averbach, a Moldovan Jew and survivor of the Kishinev pogrom, shot by an alarmed police chief as he stumbles into the Mayor’s residence during a particularly anti-immigrant phase of the city’s history. Brik’s depression and self-searching take him to Lazarus’s Moldova with a Sancho Panza-like sidekick, a jaded, sardonic former war photographer named Rora. Himself mistaken for a Jew or Muslim -- though he is neither -- Brik re-casts the vilification of Lazarus in a modern, post-9/11 setting: “The war against anarchism was much like the current war on terror -- funny how old habits never die.” Lazarus is the fulcrum with which Brik lifts up enormous quantities of history, cultural forces, notions of free will and destiny, and in which he searches for a sense of beauty and sanctity in life, the blessing of a transcendental (or at least an aesthetic) sanction. The result is a prismatic, multi-leveled historical detective novel, Hemon’s biggest and best book yet.

Bookslut interviewed Sasha Hemon at the Chicago Inter-Continental Hotel after a reading he gave at Washington Library as part of the Printer’s Row Book Fair.

In the traditional immigration paradigm, the newly-arrived European does not look backward, but simply takes opportunity by the horns and often succeeds. Here, the immigrant of a hundred years ago, Lazarus, is at least trying to accomplish something unprecedented and breaking with his past by wandering into the Chicago mayoral mansion, where he is shot dead. The narrator studying him now, Brik, turns less to his own American experience -- with how he might engage with it more -- and becomes obsessed with Lazarus, going back to Eastern Europe (Moldova) to explore the origins of the murdered youth. And Brik cannot shake off his despair.

It seems that one of your themes here is the way oppression keeps the personality from cohering: with Lazarus, his being a target of anti-socialism and anti-Semitism made personality formation impossible, and Brik’s oppressiveness of mood make it hard for him to get Lazarus’s narrative to cohere. A fair parallel?

Well, I agree that political and cultural oppression do every kind of damage, including to the psyche. Certainly there is in both Brik and his historical subject an inherent memory of displacement. Brik is caught in the locus of his lost world just as Lazarus was, which makes for a similar disorientation. But the parallelism ends there. While Lazarus was a real victim of vicious, thuggish police forces, Brik is simply depressed. That malaise is more a source and product of the narrative than being any kind of outwardly-imposed mistreatment.

True enough. But there is in both of them a tendency to affirmatively forget, to leave large swaths of horrific experience behind to begin building a new self? (For Lazarus, it was the Kishinev pogrom; for Brik, the Bosnian crisis of the early Nineties.) You or the narrator talk about each of them -- Lazarus and Brik -- doing a necessary amount of “disremembering.”

Yes, to “disremember” is to reorganize one’s experience under the new narrative. Especially for people who have come through a form of actual, physical slaughter, and to the extent the construction of narrative is memory, then that narrative, for them, has to involve a quantity of amnesia. More amnesia that is involved in most narrative.

Brik’s excessive analysis, such a part of his melancholy, keeps him from fully fleshing out the horror of what happened to Lazarus, from making it something fully human. It is here that you use Lazarus’s sister -- the perspective of a sibling -- to convey the feeling of the tragedy -- what it must be like to go and identify your teenage brother’s body.

Yes, well, you want your characters to be better than you are, or better than you have been so far in your life. Brik is a little more like the narrator or me in that he is writing about what happened to Lazarus, and thus cannot fully grasp the tragedy as can the sister, with her simple goodness, her generosity and innocence. She is able, as is the modern photographer Rora who accompanies Brik, to wholeheartedly grieve, because grief is to an extent an acceptance of the end of another human life as a completed story. Lazarus’s sister and Rora live in the world of completed stories, completed narratives. But Brik’s is open ended -- he is too much of an analyzer, a navel-gazer.

Where along that spectrum do you put Brik’s wife, the fascinating American surgeon, Mary? She seems to have an insulated, antiseptic, New World perspective; it’s a perspective that has difficulty embracing tragedy, which she seems to think belongs to more benighted peoples. You have her say of Brik that she could not see the “[D]eep face of mine, because she did not know what my life in Bosnia had been like, what made me, what I had come from; she could only see my American face, acquired through failing to be the person I wanted to be.”

Yes, but remember, she is a lightning rod for Brik’s charged, inwardly-focused and not sufficiently outwardly-expanding emotions. The wife doesn’t get to be her own person. She is always filtered through his consciousness, as must be all depictions by engaging narrators. Mary doesn’t stand on an equal footing with the guy who is describing her; we don’t see her talking to other characters, only what Brik says about her.

The book is full of Freudian mechanisms. There are the slips of tongue and understanding that reveal Brik’s despair, like when he sees the can labeled “sardines” in his midnight kitchen and thinks it says “sadness,” asking himself if they are “packaging that now.” He starts a letter to Mary inquiring about her father, saying “How is your dead?” Is he also stuck in Freud’s “repetition compulsion,” doomed always to repeat the same mistakes and only get better in the sense of finally recognizing that that is what he is doing?

Well, he is the center of consciousness of the book. Brik is the transforming viewer of so much of the action and other characters. And one of the problems with such an “objective” first person narrator is that he will make errors because he is so invested it discovering the world in a certain way. But I think that is the truest form of writing. The new worship of hyper-objectivity is, I think, mistaken. All good writing involves invested, skewered characters exploring, investigating. It is truer to the way life actually occurs than “objectivity.”

Yes, you can take the classic distinction between the purportedly objective Tolstoy and the admittedly subjective Dostoevsky. It was Dostoevsky that gave us the ability to be a third-person storyteller and yet zoom right into a character’s mind, seeing things right out through that character’s head. So the best writing is “objective” in the sense of it being a bunch of subjective perspectives we climb in and out of.

I accept that even with all my huge reservations about Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky goes too far sometimes, is almost too planted in a character’s mind for his narration to be successfully rich and sequential. Did you ever notice how, when Roskalnikov is on his way to the landlady’s house, and he’s walking along the Petersburg streets, there is no sense of space there, no sense that he is traveling along the blocks of cobblestone? It might as well just be a thought of his.

Yes, landscape. Landscape and its discontents. Brik’s preoccupation with frailty and disappointment seems embodied really effectively in the Moldovan landscape you have him travel through in his search for clues about Lazarus. Is that why you picked it, its desolation?

Yes, and of course that’s where Lazarus Averbach was from. Back when it was part of the Soviet Union, all other oblasts or republics were chosen to be industrialized or farmed. In Moldova, there were only vintners, wineries.

Is that what was called Bessarabia?

Correct. Now it is a mass of deteriorating buildings and endless sunflower fields.

Is there actually a Pogrom Museum in Chisenau (Kishinev)? And did you actually go, as Brik does when he is asking around the neighborhood about Lazarus’s origins?

Oh yes. It is the Museum of Jewish History. Unthinkable in Soviet times.

Brik seems less ironic than some of your narrators in Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man. Is it because he is witnessing larger horrors, things that can’t as effectively be separated from a narrator’s deep moral sense, that can’t be “laughed at.”

Well, there are plenty of horrors that characters witness in the other two books, but what you say is true. Again, it is partly because Brik is such a self-explorer, constantly questioning himself as a way of questioning outer reality. To be an ironist, you again have to accept the completed story incapable of further analysis; you have to concede completion to be able to hold a thing or event up to the light of irony. So I let the photographer Rora be the ironist here, the counterweight to Brik’s guilessness.

Brik gets a lot of his insights -- and psychic self-torture -- from dreams. He talks at one point of how no matter how he tries to avoid the subconscious and keep things on a surface level, thoughts unhinge and drift about in him “like a body dislocating and floating up from the bottom of a lake.” Or something like that.

Yes, though I am not a huge user of dream as a narrative device. It is just that Brik will not accept anything at face value. He imposes meaning with such a vengeance. He imposes meaning on anything. So there are dimensions of history and a breadth of insight in him that you don’t get in someone whose attitude is that something is what it is.

And a dream structure allows multiple narrative strands.

Yes, but Brik’s is, first and foremost, imposition of a narrative structure on reality. It isn’t imposed on him involuntarily as much as Freud would have it. It doesn’t leap up and overcome him as it does a true neurotic.

The Lazarus Project is a post-9/11 work. How much of an association is there between the anti-immigrant xenophobia of eighteen-nineties Chicago and our present fear of outsiders?

The theme is out there hanging. Power has the same fear of outsiders, always. And it exploits and uses that fear for its own ends, with great brutality.

Outsiders are mystified, given an exoticism, like the photos of the corpse of Lazarus positioned so that he is sitting in a chair, with the Police Chief Shippy pointing to his “simian” features.

Yes. If you are going to put a people under your boot, you give them an uncanny, mysterious power. It is the first step in the long string of excuses that accompany repression.

Brik embodies, well, he’s almost steroided up with it, this quality of sevdah that you talk about in your other books. What is its meaning in Bosnian, in Serbo-Croation?

[After a long pause] The blues.

But not so much of a whining or crying about existence, right? There is a certain resignation, almost an acceptance of the malady of consciousness. It is not just boredom, not the French ennui.

Yes, resignation. No to ennui. But The Blues is a good translation. Maybe heartbreak about existence.

Besides the Nabokov (that helped you learn English in the early Nineties) and Proust you were just describing to the audience, what are your influences?

Danilo Kis. His writing has created an atmosphere in the world I come from that is unavoidable. That darkness.

Is it ever possible for an immigrant like Brik, coming from a modern war-torn country, to ever get integrated into American life?

That goes back to 9/11 and the current administration and what it has -- with 9/11 as an excuse -- put this country through. American life is no longer self-perceived as bucolic and optimistic, and I think there is a lot of rage and guilt and despair in Americans right now. All lives exist in historically conflicted and troubling, uneasy spaces, and it is now, especially, America’s turn to feel it under this President’s regime. So Brik’s sadness and rage, if anything, integrate him into present American life.

I have never seen a work of fiction so connected to photographs. Your own photographer and good friend, Velibor Bozovic, accompanied you through Moldova just as Rora accompanied Brik. His photos are sort of spectral after-echoes of some of the turn of the century photos of the Lazarus shooting and its aftermath. How did that all work? How much of Rora is Velibor?

I knew I wanted photos and I wanted a character to be a photographer, but by the time Velibor and I reached Europe on the research trip, Rora was already a developed character. So we visited places Brik and Rora would visit and imagined how Rora would shoot the locale and what angle it would give to Brik’s search.

Of all the photos, there is one that still mystifies me, one you just showed on Powerpoint in the library. It is of a group of girls in what seem to be sailor suits, in a courtyard, with their arms arched up is some kind of ballet position.

That is an old photo of a Jewish girls’ school exercise class on a rooftop, during the TB epidemics, when fresh air and gymnastics were being stressed as preventing disease.

Yes, they look like angels.

Exactly. That instant, perfectly captured image, the great gift of the photographer. Like angels.