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.

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