Novelist and short-story writer Michel Faber, in his three monkeys interview, commented “I think it’s juvenile and arrogant when literary writers compulsively remind their readers that the characters aren’t real. People know that already. The challenge is to make an intelligent reader suspend disbelief, to seduce them into the reality of a narrative.” This is as true and as false as any great literary maxim gets. It points clearly to the tired intrusions of post-modernism into the novel, where some authors feel the need to tug the feet out from under their narrative, as if by doing so they qualify themselves as literary rather than popular.
Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, though has a dizzying amount of brilliantly told narratives, all of which are constantly being undermined by the Bosnian author, and it’s a very fine novel indeed. Which is not to invalidate Faber’s comments, or at least not completely. I’ve a suspicion that what Faber was getting at was the lazy adoption and over-use of a technique that has, after all, been part of every writer’s toolkit long before postmodernism reared its hard-to-define-head (just think of Hamlet). The distinction is, perhaps, in reaching into the essence of a story – the inscape as Gerard Manley Hopkins might have described it – and staying true to that both in terms of the narrative and the form. Hemon’s intrusions into the novel are neither arrogant or juvenile, but instead sincere and intelligent.
The starting point of the story is the killing of a Jewish immigrant and presumed anarchist, Lazarus Averbuch, in 1908 by the Chicago chief of police George Shippy. It then becomes the story of Brik, a young Bosnian writer, who in order to write a book on Averbuch goes on a research trip to Eastern Europe. So far, so good, and relatively ordinary – examining the past through a present-day researcher is not something that would put fear into the heart of your average Hollywood executive.
Hemon though is not interested in a simple compare and contrast between a jewish immigrant of 1908 and the post 9/11 immigrant experience (although that is one of the themes of the novel). He’s interested in multiple storylines, multiple parallels, and connections. It’s a story about invention, and identity as well. His writer, Brik, writes about the process of piecing together his research into a story:
“Many of those stories turned unnoticeably into a dream, whereby the narrative went completely haywire and I became but a confused character within it, unable to escape the plot. I could only snap out of it, and if I did, I instantly lost the dream, its reality vanishing the moment I woke up. Occasionaly, a violet involuntary memory of a dream emerged in my mind, like a corpse released from the bottom of the lake. Once with perfect sensory clarity, I recalled the weight of the schoolbag on my shoulder in which I carried, like a puppy, the war criminal Radovan Karadzic.
Part of the recollection ritual was admitting the defeat, recognizing that I could never remember everything. I had no choice but to remember just miniscule fragments, well aware that in no future would I be able to reconstruct the whole of them. My dreams were but a means of forgetting, they were the branches tied to the tomorrow – assuming there would be a tomorrow – could be filled up with new life. You die, you forget, you wake up new. And if I cared about God, I would be tempted to think that remembering was sinful. For what else could it be, what could remembereing all those gorgeous moments when this world was fully present at your fingertips be but a beautiful sin? […]
Did the biblical Lazarus dream, locked in the clayey cave? Did he rememer his life in death – all of it, every moment? Did he remember the mornings with his sisters, waking up with a sunbeam moving across his face like a smile, the warm goat milk and boiled eggs for breakfast? And once he was resurrected, did he remember being dead, or did he just enter another dream of another life by way of Marseilles? Did he have to disremember his previous life and start from scratch, like an immigrant?”
The book takes on big themes, and in its structure and format underlines humbly that the novel is a place for questions, and suggestions, but not answers. It reminds me of another writer, one very different in style, Tim Winton who speaking to Three Monkeys about the role of the unexplainable in a novel said “The best a novel can do is use its superstructure, all those cumulative bits of housekeeping, to achieve poem-moments, the bursts of heat and light that poems actually are.” Hemon’s book hits lots of these moments.
And this is, perhaps, why Hemon’s book doesn’t fit into Faber’s juvenile and arrogant category; because while the novel repeatedly reminds the reader of its artifice, that a novel can’t simply tell the story of Averbuch and Brik, at the same time it is fully committed to telling a good story.
“I used to tell stories to Mary, stories of my childhood and immigrant adventures, stories I had picked up from other people. But I had become tired of telling them, tired of listening to them. In Chicago, I had found myself longing for the Sarajevo way of doing it – Sarajevans told stories ever aware that the listeners’ attention might flag, so they exaggerated and embellished and sometimes downright lied to keep it up. You listened, rapt, ready to laugh, indifferent to doubt or implausability. 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, jus tthe pleasure of being in the story and, maybe, passing it off as their own. It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies makes people crave the truth and nothing but the truth – reality is the fastest American commodity”