Anarchy and Semicolons

A Chicago policeman holds up Lazarus Averbuch's dead body for a news photographer, 1908.Photo: Courtesy of The Chicago History Museum and Penguin Group

Aleksandar Hemon is ragingly addicted to semicolons. He sprinkles them onto his sentences like a baker sprinkles the everything on an everything bagel: “Isador is in the outhouse; policemen are everywhere around; Lazarus is dead; I stink of shit and sorrow; there is an endless storm outside; I am lost in a foreign country.” In one two-page stretch of his new novel, The Lazarus Project, I count sixteen of them. You get the feeling that if he ever somehow failed to sneak at least one semicolon into a paragraph, he might suffer some kind of syntactic withdrawal—his overworked right-hand pinkie finger would start to sweat and twitch uncontrollably over its home-key, until he managed to calm himself down with the methadone of a comma splice or an em dash.

Hemon’s semicolon jones seems to fill a deep spiritual need, on both a practical and a symbolic level. In a practical sense, his prodigious skill as a stylist lends itself precisely to this kind of semicolonialism. He excels at lovingly composed stand-alone literary units—jokes, giddy phrases, stories within stories, profound tender paragraphs that bloom out of nowhere, and panoramic descriptions of busy scenes: “A couple of boys were washing a white Lada in the middle of the street; a man wearing an obsolete Red Army hat stood over a blanket stretched on the pavement on which the complete works of Charles Dickens were spread out; a Darth Vader–like Orthodox priest glided along the street.” His descriptions are vivid and funny and self-perpetuating, and I tend to want them to go on for another phrase or two—and, thanks to the connective magic of the semicolon, they usually do: “The driver’s head was cubical, vines of hair creeping up his neck; there was a gray swirl around his bald spot, not unlike a satellite picture of a hurricane.”

But the semicolon, in Hemon, takes on an even larger symbolic significance. It’s less a punctuation mark than a total aesthetic program. As punctuation, the semicolon is a tweener—an awkward Frankenstein of the comma (which it overpowers) and the period (which overpowers it) whose job is almost touchingly slight: It fuses clauses that would otherwise stand on their own as independent sentences; it makes hybrids of self-sufficient phrases; it imposes semantic dual citizenship. It’s the immigrant of punctuation marks. This, too, makes it ideal for Hemon, whose identity is aggressively hybrid. He came to Chicago from Bosnia in 1992, as a 28-year-old tourist intending to stay for a few months, but got stranded when war broke out back home. His art attempts to balance, uneasily, his linked nationalities, histories, identities, and languages. He likes to blend things, and to obsess about the method of their blending. His first two books were critically adored exercises in genre hybridity: The Question of Bruno, a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, and Nowhere Man, ostensibly a novel, but which Hemon himself has said he intended to be no such thing.

The Lazarus Project masterfully balances two narratives, separated by almost 100 years but given equal imaginative weight. The first story takes off from a real historical incident: In 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant, survivor of Eastern European pogroms and refugee camps, was shot, in an apparent misunderstanding, when he tried to deliver a letter to the Chicago chief of police. The police seized on the incident as an anarchist plot to overturn the social order; the anarchists, equally absurdly, claimed Lazarus as a martyr; and the city whipped itself into a xenophobic frenzy. Hemon reimagines all of this powerfully, inventing details and story lines and fleshing out real characters—most poignantly, Lazarus’s grieving older sister, Olga, who tries to solve the mystery of what really happened while being harassed by policemen and journalists and mentally composing letters to her mother.

The second story concerns Vladimir Brik, an underemployed Hemon-like Bosnian-American writer in contemporary Chicago who becomes obsessed with the story of Lazarus and, in order to research a book about him, decides to travel the path of his life in reverse, from the former slums of Chicago back to Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and Bosnia. Eastern Europe, with its tracksuits and gangsters and terrible drivers, provides some of the flashiest color in the book. A Ukrainian gangster has “biceps like ostrich thighs”; a Moldovan businessman has “a tenderloin breaking out of his tight jeans” and drives “a gigantic Toyota Cherokee, or Toyota Apache, or Toyota Some Other Exterminated People.” On a whim, Brik brings along a long-lost Sarajevan friend, Ahmed Rora, a scam artist and serial liar who photographs the trip compulsively and tells endlessly entertaining exaggerated stories: the man who ran around war-torn Sarajevo with a plastic lemon in his mouth; the Moldovan underwater hockey team. As the Brik and Lazarus narratives progress, a century apart, Hemon allows them to intermingle. Phrases and events from one story leak into the other. (To further complicate things, Hemon apparently actually made this trip, along with his best friend, who is actually a photographer and whose photos of the trip are reprinted in the book along with historical photos of Lazarus himself.)

The central question of Hemon’s career, until now, has been a consequence of his semicolonialism: Is it possible to sustain narrative momentum by juxtaposing brilliantly vivid yet self-contained units? Would the brilliance of his balkanized parts ever cohere into the stable republic of Art? In The Lazarus Project, they have.

The Lazarus Project
By Aleksandar Hemon.
294 pages. Riverhead. $24.95.

Anarchy and Semicolons