Sunday, October 21, 2012

A storytelling code of solidarity

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon, is a kind of road trip — physically through Eastern Europe, but also through the narrator's immigrant experience and his marriage, with the ultimate destination being Chicago a hundred years ago, where Lazarus — Moldovan Jew, survivor of pogroms, alleged anarchist — was shot dead upon entering the home of the chief of police. Only past and present slowly get all mixed up and collide and disintegrate before we're ever fully there.

I think this novel knows that it can't bring the past to life as richly as it deserves, that that's not its strength, so it stops trying after a few chapters. Instead it becomes a novel about trying to write that novel.

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 implausibility. 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. 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.

Just as Hemon is both American and something else, this novel is something of a hybrid — over-the-top storytelling with injections of reality, or vice versa. Only sometimes you can't tell which parts are which; that's one of the problems when your particular reality includes things like pogroms or war.

The book also includes photos, which, ironically, while they are a permanent record of reality, seem entirely disconnected from the reality portrayed in the book; they have to be storytold into the narrative, since they are not able to speak for themselves.

This book appealled to my intellect many times over — in fact, I read this novel relatively slowly, pausing to think about what I'd read. Every day a new passage would leap out that demanded to be chewed over, shared with others. However, I never really connected with this novel, despite it bearing all the marks of being something I would love. I admire it greatly, but it turns out I don't care for it much.

The Lazaraus Project online
See also: The Paris Review
Bookslut: An interview with Aleksandar Hemon

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