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Slap a label on him, but at your own risk

Aleksandar Hemon finds the tag of novelist too limiting for what he does, which is write stories, he says, not novels.

May 25, 2008|William Georgiades | Special to The Times

NEW YORK CITY — Aleksandar HEMON looked like a man calmly bemused by inconvenience. He had been invited by PEN to celebrate the publication of his third book, "The Lazarus Project," out this month from Riverhead, but the flight from his hometown of Chicago was grounded for several hours, so the author, his wife and 7-month-old daughter showed up for the party in his honor exactly one minute before it ended.

His attitude was not so different from the one he had about him eight years ago, as his first collection of stories, "The Question of Bruno," was about to be published. The book had received advance raves. At that time Hemon had been living in Chicago for just eight years and had been writing in English for only five years.

At 44, Hemon is that rarest of authors whose back story is as interesting and troubling as anything in fiction, explaining why so much of his work seems autobiographical. In 1992, Hemon, then a resident of Sarajevo, was on a sponsored tour of America when his home city came under siege. He was essentially stranded in Chicago, where he watched his home become a war zone on CNN as he tried to learn English.

Beyond the extraordinary circumstances of his becoming an American-based, English-language writer, Hemon has become a critical darling, regularly having his work excerpted in the New Yorker, and being the recipient of both a Guggenheim grant in 2003 and the MacArthur "genius" grant in 2004. "The Lazarus Project," though, is his first new book in six years.

"The Lazarus Project" continues themes well explored in his two previous books. The Lazarus of the title is Lazarus Averbuch, a teenage immigrant from Eastern Europe who, in 1908, approached the Chicago chief of police and was shot dead. The police immediately declared Averbuch an anarchist and launched an investigation into the dead boy's family. In alternating chapters, Hemon re-imagines that investigation while also telling the parallel tale of Brik, a Hemon-sounding character, a married writer based in present-day Chicago who goes on a research trip to Eastern Europe with a photographer to research the story of Averbuch's life.

Adding to the blurred lines between fiction and reality, each chapter of "The Lazarus Project" opens with a photograph taken by Hemon's friend Velibor Bozovic, and the two men themselves took a trip to Eastern Europe to research the life of Averbuch.

Hemon is wary of tidy labels for his work. "I am not a novelist," he declared after the PEN celebration, amid the din of the Oasis Bar in a midtown W Hotel. "I am a writer, which means I write stories, I write novels, and I would write poetry if I knew how to. I don't want to limit myself."

This announcement came in response to the observation that "The Lazarus Project" is the first of his three books that he has referred to as a novel. His last book, "Nowhere Man," was "an inch short of a novel," in his estimation. "This work I only started calling a novel after I had submitted the manuscript. I woke up and realized it was a novel. Prior to this I had called it 'the big book,' " he said, laughing.

Rounding the bases

One OF the legends about Hemon is that he taught himself English in the early 1990s by reading Nabokov and underlining all the words he didn't know. In a tidy twist, his first book quickly inspired comparisons to Nabokov's clarity of expression. Along those lines, he once said that his first book was akin to heavy petting, his second to getting to first base. And his third? His voice boomed: "A home run!"

He ordered a cup of green tea. "The trouble with calling a book a novel, well, it's not like I'm writing the same book all the time, but there is a continuity of my interests, so when I start writing a book, if I call it 'a novel,' it separates it from other books. I cannot really describe all the points of continuity from my previous books to this one -- I could, but I don't care to -- it's just one big flow of language for me, and then you parse it and publish it. But for me not to be published in six years drives me crazy!"

And what had he been doing for six years? He has claimed to be an expert "idler," and stresses the importance of not writing from time to time. He's become a husband and a father. And, obviously, he worked on "The Lazarus Project" for much of that time -- the Guggenheim grant funded his research trip, and he then won the MacArthur grant, which allowed him to move to Paris for 9 1/2 months to work on the novel.

Asked if the critical praise and the grants exert some undue pressure, Hemon did not hesitate. "That's not how it works," he snapped. "You are always working on your worst book and your best book at the same time. The praise does not make you write better, and it shouldn't make you write worse either." He sipped his tea and settled back in his chair before continuing, in a suddenly friendlier tone.

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