Miracle in a Ring-Binder

Glyn Maxwell

  • The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
    Picador, 294 pp, £14.99, August 2008, ISBN 978 0 330 45841 2

Vladimir Brik, the hero of Aleksandar Hemon’s third book, The Lazarus Project, had an elderly uncle called Mikhal back in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who liked to be shown family photograph albums and to get his young nephew to point out who everyone was: ‘And here is Aunt Olga, smiling … And that’s you … And there is me.’ ‘Nobody ever found it strange’ that Uncle Mikhal was stone-blind. It occurred to the boy one day that the pictures could be blank, or pictures of anything. Then it occurred to him that perhaps he could tell Uncle Mikhal whatever he liked about the world beyond. So he rearranged events in history here and there, sinking a new ship at the Battle of Guadalcanal; he altered science, inventing a new subatomic particle, the pronek; he dreamed up a continent. This went on for years.

Eventually, the adult Vladimir Brik realises that maybe old Uncle Mikhal understood the game completely: ‘Had I been able to imagine Uncle Mikhal as complicit in my fabrications, we would have arranged more gigantic battles, explored more nonexistent continents, and built stranger universes from the strangest particles.’ Brik mentions this wondrous possibility to his photographer friend Rora, standing beside him in a queue at a McDonald’s in Chisinau, Moldova. ‘Could you possibly shut up while we eat?’ Rora says.

Stories. True stories, false stories, good stories, rotten stories. Everything in Hemon’s beautiful new novel trembles within this matrix, where a story’s force or charm is at least as significant as its veracity. Take that diamond of a title: one of the most astonishing episodes in the Christian tradition fused with a tentative Latinate gesture of a word, the promise of a great happening but not any time soon. Mythology’s most astonishing answer to a human wish is coupled to the sound of human wish at its humblest, most humdrum, least accomplished: a miracle in a ring-binder.

When Rora, a not-at-all practising Muslim man, is told the tale of the risen Lazarus for the first time, he says: ‘That’s not much of a story … How is that related to anything?’ Because Rora knows about stories. In the old country

there was a storytelling code of solidarity – you did not sabotage someone else’s narration if it was satisfying to the audience, or you could expect one of your stories to be sabotaged one day, too. Disbelief was permanently suspended, for nobody expected truth or information, just the pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own.

And so everyone wants Brik to do his ‘Lazarus Project’, to tell an old story in some new way. No one cares what it is exactly – any more than Uncle Mikhal cared what was really shown by the photographs he couldn’t see – but they all want him to get on with it. Brik is a restless Bosnian immigrant in Chicago, dark with survivor guilt for having fortuitously missed the siege of his home town, Sarajevo: like Hemon himself, who was due to fly home from a trip to the States on 1 May 1992, the day before the Bosnian Serbs completed their blockade. Brik is a writer too, who earns nothing and is grimly uncomfortable in his American Dream marriage to a brain surgeon who makes all their money. So he applies for a grant to research the 1908 murder of the Moldovan immigrant Lazarus Averbuch by Chicago’s chief of police. One of the best jokes in this book of excellent jokes is that the subject of Brik’s intended investigation is about the least disputable fact anywhere: it’s obvious from the start that this was a race killing, the dispatch of a suspicious-looking foreign ‘anarchist’ by a vicious cop answering to no one. It’s almost the only thing in the story that doesn’t cry out for examination. Lazarus isn’t coming back.

Anyway, Brik needs grant money, and it comes in the form of the elderly but game Susie Schuettler, a wealthy board member of Chicago’s Glory Foundation. Everyone jumps through hoops for that kind of dough, but Brik does so almost literally. He cavorts drunkenly with old Mrs Schuettler at a Bosnian Independence Day knees-up in a dreary suburban hotel, treads on her toes, tends to her charmingly, beams at the camera with her, makes her evening. Hemon’s sublime depiction of this sorrowful, joyful event both nails and forgives the cloudy sentimentality of the Bosnian exiles singing old songs and glorifying the dark days of the siege. ‘Just like everybody else,’ Brik thinks to himself as he watches, ‘I enjoy the unearned nobility of belonging to one nation and not another’; then, ‘over the dessert, the war is discussed.’ But at the same time he knows they went through something he didn’t: ‘Eventually the conversation turns to funny ways of not dying.’

And he has seen the glint of opportunity: ‘At the right moment I could perhaps present to [Susie] the picture of our bonding dance; she would laugh, throwing her head back, I would laugh with her, maybe touch her hand among the wineglasses; she would feel young again …’ The forms of love generate helplessly, for, hey presto, within a few weeks Brik wins his ‘Susie money’. Flowers, wine and dancing, then sitting by the phone in hope: no wonder Brik blurts out ‘I love you!’ when he hears the good news; he’s so happy he says it to her husband. And, pace Larkin, somewhere – Moldova as it happens – this all becomes rain: ‘The Susie grant required no specific itinerary or activity report; I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I eventually showed them something for it.’

Showing them something for it. A pretty young woman in Chisinau shows Brik and Rora around a little museum. Poverty, sorrow and boredom have reduced her conversation to a script: ‘The hundred years since the pogrom that devastated Kishinev have done little to heal our wounds or assuage our grief,’ she intones. Brik tries to get her to speak like a young woman, but she’s trying to show them something for it. Rora tells Brik that he was once guiding some American pilgrims around Medjugorje, a town where the Virgin was said to have revealed herself; he felt a prayer was needed but he didn’t know any, so he kneeled down and said a nursery rhyme instead, in Bosnian, with the words Isus Krist thrown in here and there, while the tourists, ‘struggling to imitate Rora’s incantation’, bowed their heads solemnly. The rhyme was about a duck paddling across the Sava with a letter in its beak reading Ne volim te vise – ‘I don’t love you any more.’ The pilgrims had come all that way and the Bosnian was showing them something for it.

And it’s Rora who is on hand to snap those deal-closing pictures of the rich old trustee gleefully twirling with the handsome young writer. Rora did live through the siege, ran with gangsters, dodged snipers, and now does weddings and funerals and independence days in the washed-out suburbs of America. Rora is composed of a shrug, an iron-clad sense of futility, a Canon he fires off every few seconds without ever seeming to develop anything, and a glittering hoard of great stories that ring true only while he’s telling them.

You’re making up these stories, I said.

I wish, he said.

You should write it all down.

I took photos.

You must write it down.

That’s what I have you for. That’s why I brought you along.

Of course it’s Brik who brings Rora along (‘Why not? I’ve got nothing else to do’) on their bleak spiralling odyssey through Ukraine and Moldova and Bosnia-Herzegovina in search of – what? Lazarus Averbuch? The old country? Themselves? But appreciable truth or reality for Rora curls quickly into forgotten snapshots littered across the empty plains of South-Eastern Europe: the story is all.

Each chapter is preceded by a grainy photograph: a speeding car, the Chicago skyline, a corpse propped up to look alive, a classroom of schoolgirls gesturing long ago to the sky. They all fit somewhere, but they’re odd, unlabelled, disordered, as if someone dropped them in flight from something. Everything that happens in The Lazarus Project, whether it takes place in America, Ukraine or Sarajevo, now or a century ago or in the terrible early 1990s, exists in some provisional and unstable zone between actuality and belief, disputed fact and agreed fiction. Brik floats at a loss through it all. When he pesters Rora for specific details of his thrills and spills in the Sarajevo siege, the photographer wonders why he’d want to know: ‘You are a nice, bookish man. Just enjoy the story.’ The hoods of Sarajevo could prove fatal to Rora when he returns, if half of what he knows about them is true. But there again, maybe none of it is.

What is true, what did happen, is the story within the story. The book begins, presumably in the voice of Brik’s now completed Lazarus Project: ‘The time and place are the only things I am certain of …’ Lazarus Averbuch, a refugee from the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, went to see Chicago’s police chief, George Shippy, on 2 March 1908 and was shot dead. This killing mutates, in a febrile and not unfamiliar atmosphere of xenophobic dread in the American heartland, into a tale of heroic self-defence by a valiant policeman, saving himself – and by extension the heartland – from a terrifying anarchist. (I’m writing this in London, in the week the Jean Charles de Menezes inquiry opens; one should stop shaking one’s head at those heartland Americans round about now.)

No one really knows why the real Lazarus Averbuch went to the home of Chief Shippy. The general consensus is that he wanted some kind of character reference from a pillar of the community, such as he might have sought in the old country, but he was certainly unarmed and not an anarchist. He was poor and Jewish and hard-working; he’d attended a few political lectures. ‘They are creatures of a different world,’ one policeman mutters. A scrap of paper is found on his body with some numbers on it: 21-21-21-63. ‘Assistant Chief Schuettler’s first guess is that these are the numbers the assassin drew in some kind of anarchist lottery, which was to decide which one of them would commit the crime.’ Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be a receipt for some eggs. Lazarus worked packing eggs. In fact the general brutality and fatuity of the cops and journalists who grind the facts into the story they want (and by implication their resemblance to the agents of dismal simplification in today’s America) are the least interesting elements of the novel. By the time Hemon has one turn-of-the-century meathead say, ‘If it was for me, I would drown you all in the lake, like rats, all of yous … you Jews,’ the point has long been made.

Far more compelling and finely handled is the way the text shows the terrible pressure exerted on truth by the greed for a meaningful story. Hemon describes the last moments of Lazarus’s life in a fragile third-person present tense being rapidly overrun – the inserted italics make the moments feel leaned on, got to – by the tone and intention of those who will report the story, give ‘evidence’, bear the witness they wish to bear:

He rings the bell; Chief Shippy opens the door; the young man steps into the murky hall … At nine o’clock sharp, Chief Shippy opens the door and sees a young man with a foreign cast of features who wears a black coat, a black slouch hat, altogether looking like a working man. In the brief all-comprehensive glance he gave his caller, William P. Miller will write in the Tribune, Chief Shippy took in a cruel, straight mouth with thick lips and a pair of gray eyes that were at the same time cold and fierce.

The living moment tumbles haplessly into newsprint. The framed immigrant’s Jewish kin are rounded up, beaten up, threatened (one is kicked to death) and subjected to the kind of grinning hatred they had fled in the Kishinev pogrom five years before.

But it’s not only the authorities who stampede towards the monolith of their brand new story. Some of the Jewish elders cluster round it too: a Herr Taube tries to get Lazarus’s surviving sister, Olga, to agree that her brother probably was an anarchist: ‘I am representing certain honourable individuals who would like to help you, both out of a sense of racial responsibility and in their own individual interest. Permit me to assure you that this combination of motives vouchsafes their sincerity.’ Leaned on, got to: the italics have gone again, but that’s when to be worried.

Olga staggers through grief, terror, humiliation, police harassment (one of Lazarus’s wanted friends is hiding in her cesspit and later, unpleasantly, in her bedroom) and mentally drafting a letter to her mother back in Kishinev: ‘Our Lazarus is asleep, but out of that sleep we may not awake him,’ which she redrafts as ‘There is no good way to say this: Lazarus is no more’ and next as ‘We’re more than fine. I have a new job as a legal secretary and Lazarus is working for the “Hebrew Voice” as a reporter.’ Desperate dreams of the law and the press as stability, salvation, bread, a voice. And these sad little drafts show the other side of the story, of story: a responsibility to love or grace or solace, the pitiable dignity of language trying to do no harm at all.

‘Justice is the people’s otherworld,’ as Les Murray has it, and that otherworld is far off indeed. If justice is done to the memory of Lazarus Averbuch and the suffering of his sister, it is done a century later and five thousand miles away, in a storybook. Just as Euripides’ Hecabe, bearing all the agonies and losses of her world, yet powerless against the mighty army responsible for them, wreaks her terrible vengeance on the negligible barbarian Polymestor, Brik (who has written no words yet) and Rora (who has developed no pictures yet) beat up a Moldovan pimp in a toilet cubicle, so his terrified ‘girlfriend’ can run away. Justice done in the psyche of the reader, an otherworld indeed. But all Brik has to show for his odyssey is his good hand broken by this probably futile act. Rora’s sister, a doctor in Sarajevo, tends to the injury and makes the inevitable point: how is that going to help him write a story?

Old stories, new stories, same stories, different stories. Rora and his sister Azra, Lazarus and his sister Olga. There is a gung-ho reporter called Miller in the Bosnian war; Miller is the bigoted journalist who writes up the Lazarus murder. The grant trustees are called Schuettler; so is the assistant police chief. One of Lazarus’s teachers had the name Brik. The internet café in Chisinau is called Chicago. There are lots and lots of these. The name of the subatomic particle the child Brik invented for his blind Uncle Mikhal, pronek, is the surname of the ‘Nowhere Man’ in Hemon’s novel before this one. Hemon’s readers know he has a fondness for this kind of Borgesian smoke-and-mirrors – the story ‘The Sorge Spy-Ring’, from The Question of Bruno, is so footnoted and cross-referenced as almost to have the life squeezed out of it – but anyone can play that game, and hundreds oblige. Hemon can do many and marvellous other things, and The Lazarus Project is such a majestic advance on the great promise already so evident that some of the more playful elements feel like toys left behind.

The realisation that language and story are unstable and negotiable becomes in too many writers a free pass to believing that facts are, that events are. Maybe it’s literature that needs a Sokal hoax. Maybe it came and we showered it with prizes. For at the end of that long cul-de-sac is suspicion of everything but one’s own suspicion. And Hemon knows, and allows Brik to know, that some things did happen and it matters that they did. However many tall tales are bought and sold at the edges of the bonfire, there was a bonfire. One of the men who started the bonfire was until recently standing up in a Belgrade bar in a cunning disguise, reciting Serb poetry beneath a picture of himself. Writing in the New York Times in July this year, Hemon quoted a Belgrade newspaper as saying that ‘on at least one occasion Mr Karadzic, undercover as a New Age charlatan, recited an epic poem in which he himself featured as the main hero, performing epic feats of extermination.’ In the novel Hemon has Brik dream about carrying Karadzic in a schoolbag ‘like a puppy’. Which of the above is a weirder story? For all the cynicism and futility and powerlessness Brik and Rora heave across the empty spaces of Eastern Europe, they know something happened and it matters that it did.

It’s not especially interesting that Hemon has come to this language from another, or especially exciting that he knows his way around postmodernism: it’s just very good news he’s here, because he can write paragraphs that free-fall through history, clutching at twigs of the long gone and the passing by, to render moments of deep resonance and beauty, as when Lazarus wanders into a grocery store on his last afternoon in wintry Chicago:

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 breastfeed it.

For Hemon language serves life, not the other way around. It gabbles, it gossips, it makes stuff up, but it gets tired of that, turns honestly fatigued and plain, disabused and grave in the face of life, as a Lazarus dies again, and doesn’t come back again.