Genre: Fiction, Immigrant story

Notes: Critics have hailed Hemon as the second coming of Nabokov.  He has received a Genius grant for his work.  Personally, I think it is like giving Obama the Nobel Peace prize – premature.

Review: I’m not saying Hemon isn’t talented.  He is.  And this book is beautifully written.  However, for such an emotionally charged story and tragedy at every turn, it lacks emotion.  Completely.

Hemon tells the story of Lazarus, a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant who comes to the United States in the 1900s.  Lazarus escapes a life of terror, antisemitism, and want to join his sister in Chicago.  He survives a pogrom in his city only to realize the United States doesn’t offer Jews much of a chance, either.  In the opening chapter of the book, the Chicago chief of police shoots Lazarus seven times and blames it on Lazarus’s “anarchist” principles.

We learn about Lazarus through the eyes of Vladimir Brik – a Bosnian Jewish immigrant who lives in Chicago who emigrated after the Bosnian/Serb/Kosovo craziness in the early 90s.  I can’t pretend I’m a good citizen of the world and understand what went on in that civil war, but I know it had something to do with ethnic cleansing and the chaos surrounding the collapse of the USSR.  Bosnia became one of those bajillion Eastern European countries to spring into existence along Russia’s borders.  The Serbs, wanted to create a strictly serbian country (I think) and wanted to cleanse the area of Bosnian Muslims.  In doing so, the army surrounded the city of Sarajevo and held them under siege for like four years.  (all of these details from Wikipedia – don’t give me credit.  I’m not sure I could label Bosnia on a map)

The story of Lazarus and of Brik become inextricably entwined.  Their lives and disappointment mirror each other.  Each sought the United States as a land of refuge, peace, and a place to start over but neither one fully felt comfortable here.  Brik marries an American brain surgeon and assimilated more than Lazarus, but he feels that America will never be his home.

Brik and his friend Rora, a Sarajevan war photographer, embark on a journey to Ukraine to follow Lazarus’s path and  visit their homeland of Bosnia.

From the reviews I’ve read of Hemon’s other books, he is an excellent writer.  And I can tell from his prose and the way he handles the narrative that Hemon is exceptionally talented.  However, this novel feels like one big philosophical muse about the meaning of life, home, and the immigrant experience.  Hemon reminds me a little of Jhumpa Lahiri in that he writes about one thing:  immigrant experience in America.  But they’re both damn good at it.

In the end, I wasn’t attached to the main characters of Rora and Brik.  And this may have been a narrative strategy Hemon employed to show the irrationality and chaotic aspects of life.  Why should we care about one person above another?  A life is a life is a life, no matter who it is.  It felt like Brik and Rora were just two guys displaced by war, a statistic in a tragedy that affected a huge amount of people.  They weren’t special and the narrative didn’t make them special.

Bottom Line: It is a well written book and one on a topic I know next to nothing about.  The prose is excellent, but it lacks the emotional punch I thought it should carry.  I’m not going to give up on Hemon, though.  I want to see if he lives up to his Genius grant.