Aleksandar Hemon traces the shadows of xenophobia in America.
Two photos haunt Aleksandar Hemon. Both show Chicago Police Captain Michael Evans standing behind the seated, dead body of Russian immigrant Lazarus Averbuch, an alleged anarchist who was shot and killed at the home of Police Chief George Shippy in 1908. In the more famous of the two, Evans holds Averbuch’s head in both his hands, facing the camera. But it’s the other image, taken from the side, that still lingers in Hemon’s imagination.
“In the other one, Captain Evans is moving when the photo was taken, and his face is smeared, so he looks like a ghost,” says Hemon on the phone from his Edgewater home. “It’s that smeared face, that’s something that has been haunting me for a while.”
Averbuch’s story has become a footnote in Chicago’s history of labor dispute, a footnote that hearkens back to the Haymarket riots and civic unrest at the end of the 19th century that continued into the beginning of the 20th, and the uncomfortable acclimation of immigrants into the city. In Hemon’s telling, Lazarus’s sister Olga becomes the central character after her brother’s death, a lightning rod for the city’s xenophobia, superstitions and fears. Running alongside Olga’s story is that of 21st-century writer Vladimir Brik—a Bosnian living in Chicago and writing a column for the Reader—who becomes enthralled with Averbuch’s story. After researching as much as he can stateside, Brik and his friend Rora attempt to trace Averbuch’s life back across Eastern Europe, as Rora colors their search with his own stories of being a photographer in war-torn Sarajevo.
Rora’s purported photography, along with images from Chicago’s past, provide visual epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. Rora’s shots were actually the work of Hemon’s friend, Velibor Bozovic, who accompanied Hemon to Eastern Europe, snapping photos for the book. Like Brik and Rora, Hemon and Bozovic traveled around Eastern Europe, Hemon to research what he can about Averbuch’s life before America, and Bozovic to take more than 1,200 photos for possible inclusion in the book.
“When I saw the photo of Lazarus, and I thought I could write a book about him, I knew I wanted that photo in the book,” Hemon says. “So I knew I wanted to have photography in the book to augment and enhance the narrative.”
The Lazarus Project represents the most ambitious and successful of Hemon’s books so far. While Hemon has always been fascinated by tales of immigration, his own tale has already entered Chicago legend. The Bosnian-born writer visited Chicago in 1992 with a less-than-working knowledge of English, but was unable to return home when violence erupted in Sarajevo that year. He stayed on, and by 1995 had published his first story in English. In 2000, a collection of short stories, The Question of Bruno, was published to high acclaim. Nowhere Man, a novel about a Sarajeven stranded in Chicago, appeared in 2002, garnering further acclaim. The MacArthur Foundation bestowed one of its famed “genius grants” on Hemon in 2004, when he was hip-deep in The Lazarus Project. The substantial financial award allowed him to work unimpeded. (In the time since he received the grant, he also finished another collection of stories, due next year.)
With the saga of the bereaved Olga and the displaced Brik, Hemon has told his most complete story of the immigrant experience. The tale of Lazarus serves less as allegory for the contemporary tensions surrounding immigration and more as a direct corollary. As Hemon says, the fear of immigrants in America has never dissipated.
“The rhetoric never dies; the ideology never dies,” he says. “What’s so fascinating about Lazarus’s story is that he escaped a pogrom to come here, and his American dream was a nightmare. It’s a story that runs contrary to the mythology of the melting pot.”
Hemon reads from the new book Thursday 1.