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(Auto)pathography, Photography, Trauma in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project

Angeliki TSETI


Cet article se propose de discuter l’autopathographie photo-textuelle comme un dispositif narratif qui témoigne des façons dont des expériences traumatiques se lient entre elles, à la suite de la suggestion de Cathy Caruth : “one’s own trauma is tied up to the trauma of another” (Unclaimed Experience 8). Ainsi, ce dispositif pourrait relever le défi de traiter un événement prétendument irreprésentable en établissant, dans le même temps, un nexus d’affiliations entre des sujets traumatisés, sans tenir compte des spécificités spatiotemporelles. The Lazarus Project d’Aleksandar Hemon (2008), composé d’une autobiographie déguisée et d’une biographie fictive, présente un exemple éloquent du modèle proposé par Leigh Gilmore : la construction d’un récit (auto)biographique de trauma provient souvent d’un individu racontant les expériences des autres. De façon significative, cette approche (auto)biographique émane d’une œuvre photo-textuelle, c’est-à-dire d’une combinaison dans laquelle photographie et fiction se complètent réciproquement. En effet, la thanatographie offre un point de départ pour que l’écrivain puisse tout à la fois évoquer son expérience traumatique personnelle et promouvoir un sentiment d’identité collective que crée l’expérience partagée des victimes. L’emploi de la photographie ainsi que l’assemblage d’histoires de vies différentes au sein d’un même dispositif photo-narratif sont susceptibles de transcender l’impossibilité déclarée de toute représentation d’une expérience collective traumatique. Dans le roman d’Aleksandar Hemon, l’écriture d’une l’histoire de vie traumatique est rendue possible à travers l’inscription photo-textuelle de la mort d’un autre.

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Texte intégral

To reconcile all these simultaneous selves… one of the ways to work at it—perhaps the best—is storytelling: telling stories about yourself to others, telling stories about yourself to yourself, telling stories about others to others.
Aleksandar Hemon

1Autobiography’s intrinsic relation to pathography and thanatography has been consistently theorised since the 1990s as part of the ever-increasing interest in the so-called “memory boom” and the notable rise of the memoir. Specifically, scholars engaged in the study of the memoir genre trace and delineate the emergence of pathography as a direct consequence of contemporary memoir’s inherent connection to the question of trauma; as Leigh Gilmore observes, “the cultural awareness that something significant was happening around and through memoir crystallised in relation to the recognition of trauma’s centrality to it.” (2)

2In the course of this encounter between life narratives and pain, however, the attempt to bridge the exceptional nature of the traumatic experience and the everyday was marked by a crucial contradiction, namely the “limit of representativeness.” (Gilmore 5) Writing trauma posits particular challenges, specifically with reference to the limits of language and representability or the distortions of memory and truth inherent in testimonial accounts. Rather than adhering to the Western autobiographical tradition of a first-person narrative formulating a personal experience that is also pertinent to the collective, the trauma memoir unfolds around a moment that eludes comprehension and, as Roger Luckhurst notes, “escapes self-apprehension… the trauma memoir recounts a discordance, a circling around a shattering event, from which self-knowledge arrives late, if at all, and with an uncomfortable awareness of the fragility of the self.” (118) Accordingly, the very particular nature of the traumatic experience entails a precarious position for the listener/reader who, as Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman suggest, is invited to become “a co-owner of the traumatic event;” someone who “through his very listening … comes to partially experience trauma in himself” (57), while simultaneously maintaining his own perspective and acknowledging his status as a separate entity that will relate to the victim but will not identify with them.

  • 1 I am referring to Saul Friedlander’s formulation of a non-numerical concept of “uniqueness,” accord (...)

3How, then, can the auto/biographical conventions of truth-telling accommodate the silences and distortions following a traumatic experience? How may these unassimilable residues of the past be enunciated, perhaps even represented, so that they find their bearings in the present? What is more, when it comes to “limit”1 traumatic events, how can the testimony of an individual exceed the limits of representation and lack of familiar context so that it may establish relations of kinship and become pertinent to the collective? Gilmore suggests that in instances of trauma, when “the portals are too narrow and the demands too restrictive” (3), self representation is often performed through the telling of another story, which constitutes an attempt and an opportunity for writers “to promote themselves as representative subjects, that is subjects who stand for others.” (4) As this article wishes to submit, the establishment of a nexus of affiliations between different traumatised subjects may be more effectively achieved in bimediality, specifically photo-textuality; or, in other words, the combination of written text and photography—and its particular, as per Barthes, relation to death—in a relationship of reciprocity and complementarity.

4Bosnian-born American writer Aleksandar Hemon creates an eloquent example of this model in The Lazarus Project (2008) which consists in a disguised autobiography and a fictional biography of the writer’s immigrant doubles. The novel tells the story of Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian refugee in Chicago, who embarks on a journey to Eastern Europe with his photographer friend, Ahmed Rora, searching for the traces of Lazarus Averbuch and trying to uncover the truth behind the latter’s death. Lazarus, a true personage, was a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant, alleged anarchist and follower of Emma Goldman, who, having survived the pogrom in Kishinev, arrives in Chicago in September 1907, eager for “all the good things that might happen one day” (2), only to be shot seven months later by the chief of Chicago police, upon entering the latter’s house to deliver a note. Lazarus’s story is recounted via newspaper reports and photographic documents of the time, as well as imaginative reconstructions, and is juxtaposed to Brik’s story.

5It should be noted right from the start that Hemon has vehemently rejected the connection between himself and his narrator in numerous interviews, stating that: “the biographical proximity of Brik and me might have been my tactical mistake, in many ways. I counted on people seeing the differences. For I never, not for a moment, did I think that any of my books are autobiographical… The ‘I’ in my book is not me.” (emphasis added; Boswell 257) Nevertheless, self-representation remains a focal preoccupation in Hemon’s writing, as he persistently depicts characters who share his double identity, follow similar life patterns, and who are themselves driven by what Gilmore calls an “auto/biographical demand.” (72) In Wendy Ward’s words, Hemon “targets that space between national identities and cross-cultural trajectories and contemplates transnational possibilities by way of individuals who fall into the author’s own flight patterns.” (186)

  • 2 Apart from the details surrounding his arrival and settlement in the United States, these similarit (...)
  • 3 See especially: Knight, Lania. “A Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon.” The Missouri Review 32:3 (Fa (...)
  • 4 Apart from the novel, the two men’s journey generated a website project where Božović presents a la (...)

6The Lazarus Project, in particular, unfolds around a fictional self who not only shares the writer’s biographical details2 and hyphenated identity, but who has also, like the writer, not witnessed the Bosnian conflict directly. Brik had travelled to Chicago in the previous summer and was stranded there by the outbreak of war, forced to watch the atrocities committed in his homeland through television frames and newspaper reports. What is more, the writer has, interestingly, often discussed how, prior to writing the novel, he embarked on a similar journey together with his childhood friend, photographer Velibor Božović. According to Hemon’s interviews,3 the stills embedded in the verbal narrative are a sample of the photographs taken during the journey and the book itself originated from the assemblage of notes he had taken about and around these photographs.4

7In effect, the (auto)biographical gestures that Hemon performs in The Lazarus Project effectuate the construction of an intricate (auto)pathography, or, perhaps, an idiosyncratic (auto)thanatography, which mirrors the writer’s attempts to explore the dis- and re-establishment of his identity and work through the traumatic experience of violent expatriation. Lazarus Averbach’s thanatography inspires and shapes this (meta)fictional writing project since, as the two narratives alternate chapter by chapter and eventually interweave, they unravel recurrent, timeless instances of war, dislocation and xenophobia—specifically situated albeit not limited to the American soil. In a sense, Lazarus’s thanatography not only offers a starting point for the writer to foster a sense of a collective identity marked by a history of victimhood and exile, but also signals Thanatos as the result of this process: it reflects the writer(s)’s psychic death and foretells the loss of one of their “simultaneous selves,” as mentioned in this article’s epigram, specifically the erasure of their hyphenated self.

8At the same time, Lazarus’s “resurrection” through the privileged medium of photography—namely through the use of the photographic archives of the time—and the juxtaposition of life stories, performed both verbally and pictorially, instigate an attentive type of reading that may generate what LaCapra calls “empathic unsettlement.” This type of emotional response consists in “an affective aspect of understanding which both limits objectification and exposes the self to involvement or implication in the past,” while shunning “full identification” (102). Eventually, as exemplified by Hemon’s fiction, trauma life-writing—(auto)pathography or even (auto)thanatography—may become possible through the photo-textual inscription of the death of the other.

I. (Auto)pathography: Telling Another Story

9Constantly shifting between a first-person and a third-person narrative, (auto)pathography in The Lazarus Project is constructed through a perpetual oscillation between the present and the past that is performed through the allegedly fictional account of the narrator’s research on Lazarus’s thanatography and the overtly imaginative reconstruction of the circumstances prior and immediately after the latter’s death. While thus alternating between the memoir and a (fictional) biographical narrative—presumably the end product of the narrator’s endeavour to write a book about Lazarus Averbuch—the novel also depicts the thoughts and feelings of Lazarus’s sister, Olga, and best friend, Isador, as well as numerous anecdotal stories that reflect the immigrant experience in the United States. It, therefore, constitutes a site where different voices coalesce in order to address their refugee status and depict the trauma of dislocation in its totality. Significantly, as the metafictional device allows for the writer’s pathography to be recounted through Brik and, in turn, while Brik approaches his own traumatic experience through Lazarus’s thanatography, extremity is consistently addressed through telling the stories of others.

  • 5 In his interview with Menachem Kaiser for the New Yorker, Hemon defines “conditional Americanness” (...)
  • 6 Josef Pronek is the writer’s other alter-ego, a narrator/character who arrives from Sarajevo in 199 (...)

10Although Brik’s interest in Lazarus’s story and fervent pursuit of its reconstruction stems not from the traumatic experience of fleeing a war per se—since, as mentioned above, he has not experienced the conflict directly—but rather its haunting absence, a particular type of survivor’s guilt, his infatuation with the events that had unfolded almost a century before does relate to his immigrant status and hyphenated identity; it is directly linked to his own concepts of assimilation and exclusion. Interestingly, however, rather than merely delineating kinship and affinity between the two men, Brik’s engagement in his research results in a complication of his own perceptions; it leads to the highlighting of the narrators’ inability to achieve what Hemon calls “conditional Americanness.”5 As the writer notes in one of his interviews, in comparison to his other fictional self, Josef Pronek,6 “Brik is far less nostalgic, but he experiences transformation as depletion—as death” (emphasis added; Knight 97). He resides in a state of profound melancholia which he seeks to address by investigating his immigrant other’s physical death; eventually, however, his engagement in Lazarus’s story provides a springboard for the narrator to explore his own traumatised self-hood, his own psychic death.

11The narrator’s hyphenated identity is established right at the onset of the novel, as he commences his narration stating:

I am a reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries. In America—that somber land—I waste my vote, pay taxes grudgingly, share my life with a native wife, and try hard not to wish painful death to the idiot president. But I also have a Bosnian passport I seldom use; I go to Bosnia for heartbreaking vacations and funerals, and on or around March 1, with our Chicago Bosnians, I proudly and dutifully celebrate our Independence Day with an appropriately ceremonious dinner. (11)

12Prima facie, Brik seems profoundly rooted to both his land of origin and country of residence; he engages in a continuous merger of his native tongue and learnt language and enacts what Richard Gray calls “the syncretic character of American culture” (89) by recurrently observing and imaginatively exploring not only the differences in mentality and mœurs between the two countries, but also the mutual influences and transformations occurring between his fellow Bosnians and their adoptive home. This critical engagement, however, eventually instils a profound sense of non-belonging, manifest in his scepticism about a country where “there is no space left for useless metaphysical questions. There are no parallel universes [t]here” (205); reinforced by the difference of perspective between him and his family; instigating his interest in the (familiar) story of Lazarus Averbuch.

13The verbal narrative offers an abundance of examples that testify to these differences, as well as their isolating effect, and indicate how, after all, as Ward suggests, “Brik appears relentlessly worn out by juggling his double citizenship” (191). For instance, when the narrator discusses the Bosnian infatuation with storytelling in contrast to the American craving for “the truth and nothing but the truth” (103); as he expresses his discomfort towards interlocutors who commonly equate the immigrant experience to a story of success: “I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that I had lost my teaching job and that I was pretty much supported by Mary” (32); or as he wonders over how, for his American friends and family, “[his] country was this remote, mythical place … a remnant of the world from before America, a land of obsolescence.” (163) The most illustrative example of the detached and dispassionate, immigrant vision he possesses—but also of the distance this perspective creates between him and his family—is presented in a reference to the Abu Ghraib photographs, a propos which he engages into a “hurtful fight” (188) with his wife. She maintains that “what she saw was essentially decent American kids acting upon a misguided belief that they were protecting freedom” (88), whereas he enrages over the abhorring American expression of “unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else’s life and death” (188), sanctioned by ideas of righteousness and good intentions.

14Thus incited to designate the refugee consciousness and to “imagine how immigrants lived then” (41) and while, eventually, immersed in the search for self-knowledge, Brik embarks on a writing project that is twofold shaped by the other’s death. At a surface stratum, the writing of Lazarus’s thanatography constitutes a stepping stone for the narrator—or the writer—to comment on the post-9/11 “sumptuous palette of American fears” (47) and draw direct parallels between early twentieth century conflicts and twenty-first century discrimination. Subsequently, however, the process of trailing Lazarus’s steps also effectuates an acting out of the narrator’s own trauma that pertains specifically to the in-between space he feels to be occupying and transforms into an attempt to complete his own gaps of the recent Sarajevo past: “I needed to re-imagine what I could not retrieve; I needed to see what I could not imagine. I needed to step outside my life in Chicago and spend time in the wilderness of elsewhere.” (46) Eventually, this process shapes into the writing of Brik’s own thanatography: a chronicle of the narrator’s realisation that his adopted identity is not only “conditional,” but also precarious, and an account of his journey towards relinquishing his American self.

15The similarities and connections between the two protagonists, as well as, primarily, the persistence of xenophobia in the American culture and the recurrence of persecution and exile are indicated via a series of dualities and doubling effects that pertain both to the content of the storylines and to the novel’s formal structure. In terms of content, this is achieved through multiple mirroring references that link the alternating narratives and that range from 1908 archival descriptions of the “outlandish stranger” (53) and present date anecdotes about police brutality resulting from a citizen’s inability to speak the language, to explicit expressions of past time indignation and hostility against “the contaminating presence of the foreign elements who landed on these welcoming shores with no intention to contribute to the commonwealth but to hate and violate” (272); or direct observations on how “the war against anarchism was much like the war on terror—funny how old habits never die.” (emphasis added; 42)

  • 7 Focusing on the Lazarus’s parts of the novel, and considering that this is presented as the narrato (...)

16As the narrative progresses, Lazarus’s story permeates Brik’s memoir which transforms into a seamless composite of the two men’s experiences. Significantly, these interspersions occur while the narrator records his journey in Eastern Europe and invariably pertain not to the catastrophe but to instances of wordlessness and feelings of bewilderment, fear or loss experienced in the course of reaching the new country, adjusting to the everyday and struggling for survival. In effect, consequent to the ways in which Brik’s preoccupation with Lazarus’s experience provides an impetus for the surfacing of his own trauma, parts of the Jewish immigrant’s story seep into the main narrative—presumably in the form of mental notes on the book in progress—so as to testify to the narrator’s identification with his subject7 and echo his own anxieties, while at the same time functioning as a substitute for their expression.

17More specifically, once Brik, accompanied by his photographer friend, Rora, reaches his destination, the previously subtle indications of trauma—asking his wife to describe her surgeries so that he can grasp the feeling of death, for instance, or beating the doors in his house—become telling and dominate the narrative. Cathy Caruth defines trauma as “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.” (11) Accordingly, during his sojourn in Eastern Europe, Brik occasionally succumbs to seemingly inexplicable tantrums, fits of rage or profound melancholia; he recalls one morning in Chicago when, upon seeing a can of sardines on the kitchen counter he mistakes the name on the label for SADNESS; and he is constantly tormented by flashbacks of his past life and nightmares:

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. Occasionally, a violent memory of a dream emerged in my mind, like a corpse released from the bottom of the lake. Once, with a perfect sensory clarity, I recalled the weight of the schoolbag on my shoulder in which I carried, like a puppy, the war criminal Radovan Karadžić. (126-127)

18Again, the narrator finds recourse to his other, for, during the moments when Brik experiences disorientation or discomfort, his memoir is swiftly interjected by short—usually paragraph-long—references to Lazarus often depicted in a similar situation. A most illustrative example is offered when, during a three-hour-long wait for a bus, Brik is bothered by the heat and flaccidness, snaps at Rora and immediately forms a dream-like vision of Lazarus “on the train from Vienna to Trieste… imagining an incomprehensible future… sweating.” (176) In fact, Brik’s identification with the Jewish immigrant is so powerful that he not only replaces recounting the manifestations of his trauma with mental, verbal instantanés from Lazarus’s biography, but also considers working through his traumatic experience tantamount to reaching the end of his quest. Although haunted by the visions of his own past, the narrator—unimpeded by the shortage of survivors or witnesses and the lack of evidence—compulsively pursues his search for Lazarus’s traces until he finds himself in an abandoned, nondescript cemetery in the woods; there his feelings of despair and helplessness heighten, acting out culminates and the healing process begins:

Why did you leave me lost in the woods Mary? I loved you because there was no other place for me to go. We were married because we did not know what else to do with each other. You never knew me, nothing about me, what died inside me, what lived in visibly.

Some part of my life ended there, among those empty graves; it was then that I started mourning. I can tell you that now, now that there is little but mourning. (234-235)

19As Brik thus acts out his trauma and explores his own psychic torment and position of liminality by way of investigating Lazarus Averbuch’s fate, and as one life story interlaces with the other in a single narrative, The Lazarus Project enacts Hemon’s belief in literature’s ability to “allow for this sensation of erasure of borders between the self and the world.” (Boswell 257) In addition to telling one’s trauma through the story of another, however, the novel explores the writer’s interest in the possibility of blending, rather than merely paralleling, diverse histories of suffering and loss occurring in different chronotopes. This is achieved with the introduction of the photograph and the employment of bimediality.

II. Photography: Similarity in Bimediality

20While staging this meta-fictional life writing—of a fictional self who is attempting to address his own trauma by writing the life of a victim of another traumatic event that has, nevertheless, followed a similar trajectory—Hemon further re-enacts this process of re-imagination and re-construction of the traumatic experience by filling the in-between-stories spaces of the novel with photographs. Thus, he establishes the role of the camera and the photographer as one of the dominant elements of his plot, and, eventually, appoints the process of interpretation and association to the viewer/reader. The inclusion of photography in life writing may seem rather natural given the properties the two share. As Timothy Dow Adams notes in Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography,

Autobiography is a form of narrative characterised by a desire both to reveal and to conceal [and] as a result, its power comes from… the indeterminacy of its sense of reference to the world. The fact that life writing and light writing, both by definition and common perception, have a strong felt relationship to the world, a relationship that on examination seems to disappear, is paradoxically what gives both forms of narration their unusual strength because this situation parallels the way all language works. (15)

21In Hemon’s case, however, the inclusion of photographs in the narrative is not tantamount to a referential gesture of authentication; nor is it a matter of reviving the past by calling on photographic indexicality. Instead, the photographic element in the novel is intended to complement and complicate the verbal narrative, to create instability, and to further dismantle the boundaries between fact and fiction, the self and the world, history and memory, the past and the present.

  • 8 This photograph is situated in the frontispiece, before title page and before copyright page. In th (...)

22More specifically, each separate chapter in The Lazarus Project is introduced with a photograph, rather than a title or a number, originating either from the archives of the time—for the parts narrating Lazarus’s story—or from the collaboration between the author and Velibor Božović. The presence of the photographs reinforces the autobiographical quality of the novel by reiterating the narrator/writer dynamic through that of the fictional and real photographer; and introduces an added doubling effect, namely, narration in both verbal and visual terms. As Sonia Weiner also argues, “photography, with its concrete yet questionable relation to ‘the real,’ partakes of and touches upon the various dualities in the novel… as an alternative point-of-view to that of narrative.” (217) As suggested by the novel’s frontispiece of a man standing in front of a mirror,8 photography invites an alternative point of view that is generated by the viewer/reader’s gaze and, thus, entails and unveils countless possibilities. Hence, while—thus lying at the interstices of the two storylines—these photographs structurally enhance both the rupture and fragmentation instilled by the trauma of dislocation, and the duality of temporality, at the same time they bestow visibility on the boundaries between the two timelines and cultures, in a manner which, in fact, “establish[es] a kind of continuity between [the] two story lines” (Knight 90); they delineate experiential overlap and connections.

23These rapports stem predominantly from the pictures’ blurriness, their spectrality and presentation. Invariably black-and-white, consistently encased in wide, black frames and always placed on the centre of the page, all the photographs inserted in the novel carry a specific “antiquated aesthetic” that, as Ward suggests, “accentuates the ethereal tone of each photograph regardless of actual content” (196) and irrespective of their provenance, whether archival or contemporary; the black pages that surround them resemble those of a photographic album that, when leafed through, tells a singular story. The coupling of historical photographs with contemporary ones seems to be reinforcing this veiling/unveiling effect as well as the interplay between fact and fiction: whereas the shots taken from the Chicago Historical Archives arguably correspond to the past/factual events and work towards authenticating them, Božović’s present-time photographs—which do not always carry an explicit verbal referent—cannot anchor the fictional events to reality. Accordingly, the archival photographs’ referentiality and traces of the real are destabilised by their placement within a fictional context; in fact, upon their first viewing and apart from the scarce indications provided by the subject matters’ clothing or accoutrements, these photographs bare no stable indications as to their time frames and reference and the viewer/reader cannot readily ascertain which time period they belong to.

24This is also true of Lazarus Averbuch’s death pictures, depicting two men posing in front of the camera, one standing and the other sitting, first en face (52) and then from a profile angle. (240) The setting is dark, the background is dim and the pose—with the standing man clasping the chin of the sitting person almost endearingly—resembles a scientific, anthropometric picture, rather than an image of death. It is not until after careful observation of the photographic details—Lazarus’s awkward posture, the empty look in his half-shut eyes, or the lack of a shirt—that the viewer realises that, in fact, this is the portrayal of a dead person. Lazarus’ death pose picture strongly reminds us of photography’s close relation to death, the fact that “everybody who has ever been photographed is either dead or will die.” (189) Yet, more than this, its manifold connections to the other elements of the narrative establish this still as the element in the novel that most eloquently indicates the distortion, condensation and a-chronicity of time; the space-irrelevant, cross-cultural and trans-national affinities developing around suffering and loss; and, perhaps, the anticipation of Thanatos as the inescapable fate of any one following the same life course.

25The—not readily decipherable—handwriting on the still introduces the coexistence of two past moments: that of the “that-has-been” or “formerly” (97), to quote Roland Barthes, and that of the later time when the names of the two men were inscribed; in tandem, its inclusion in the narrative superimposes the temporal dimensions within the frame with the present of its viewing. This sense of duration suggested by the photographic “slice of time” is reiterated by the still’s reappearance in the novel many pages after and reinforced by the ‘resurrection’ of the protagonist through the fictional account of his life. In parallel, as this violence-infused—neither merely a post-mortem photograph, nor simply a police mug-shot—image returns accompanied with a verbal narration of the night of the pogrom from which Lazarus fled, spatial specificities also fade and expand, to include sites of conflict across Europe (the pogrom in Moldova and the war in former Yugoslavia), but also across the Atlantic, where refugees and immigrants sought a better fate and met with racism and xenophobia. In addition to these more readily discernable associations, Lazarus’s photograph may be coupled with Božović’s still of tombstones in a Jewish cemetery (226) to speak of the extent of the persecution of Jews in Europe and across the Atlantic.

26The dismantling of spatiotemporal linearity performed through the combination of past-time photographs shot in Chicago and present-time shots taken in Ukraine and Bosnia is further heightened by the photo-textual dispositif that enhances the instability created by the interlacing of fact and fiction. In effect, regardless of whether the viewer/reader chooses to dwell on the photographs in the course of their reading or opts for a separate inspection of the two—verbal and visual—narratives, the novel’s bimediality instigates a process whereby the viewer/reader seeks to appropriate the visual element with a verbal referent; an indication that will reveal the identity of the person posing, or a piece of information that will counter the blurriness of the landscape. The numerous references to Rora taking pictures as well as the two friends’ conversations on photography in the verbal narrative constitute incentives for the viewer/reader to return to the photographs, ponder, re-cognise, associate, or trace the discrepancies and, thus, participate in the creation of meaning.

27This back-and-forth movement is consistently maintained throughout The Lazarus Project, irrespective of whether the verbal element overtly corresponds to a visual counterpart and vice versa, or the links between the two are inconspicuous. The consistent mentions to Rora photographing the narrator, always at a time when Brik is frowning, for instance, persistently invite the viewer/reader to return to the portrait of a man staring upward at the lens (28) and, arguably, compare this still with the frontispiece; the picture of the dog (122) seems out of context until Brik describes seeing a man and a woman putting a dog in the garbage a number of pages after (134); and the image of the destroyed house, its garden filled with broken objects (216), appears to have no verbal referent or explanation, unless perhaps when connected to the chief of police’s warning to Lazarus’s sister: “[a]nd I do not need to tell you what a crowd of excited Christians is capable of doing.” (222) The most eloquent example of the ties binding the visual and verbal narratives is, again, presented by Lazarus’s death pose and its relation to the verbal descriptions of the Abu-Ghraib photographs; as the writer himself has noted:

[i]t interested me how we were suddenly torturing people and taking photos of them... the picture of Lazarus being held up by the police captain—a dead immigrant that was suspected of something and killed just in case—was structurally identical to the Abu Ghraib pictures. (Reyn n.p.)

28Apart from the multiple connections between Lazarus’s photograph and other verbal or visual elements discussed above, what is most interesting about the prevalent picture of The Lazarus Project and its function in the photo-textual compound is the way in which it comes into stark contrast with Brik’s musings over black and white photographs and how they “made it all look old and wise, belonging to a different, vanished, therefore better, world.” (emphasis added; 34) The blatant contradiction emerging from the juxtaposition of one protagonist’s verbal statement and the other’s death pose both summarises the dynamics of the photo-textual apparatus and highlights the aporias raised, and the consequent role of the viewer/reader in the construction of meaning. Rather than adhering to a conception of photography as mooring a text to reality and endowing it with evidentiary value, when participating in the workings of the photo-text photographic stills acquire an elusive quality; they challenge, contradict, and eventually become what Tim Schlak calls “evasive documents.” In effect, as Aleksandar Hemon tells Deborah Baker,

The question… becomes whether the story in my book becomes authentic because of the presence of photos or the photos become inauthentic because of the presence of the story. The line between what happened and what could have happened is blurred, the border between the real and the imagined is rendered irrelevant. (n.p.)

29What is of essence here is that, given the variability pertaining to their functions within the novel and type of interaction with the verbal accounts, the photographic element in Hemon’s (auto)pathography potentiates the fact/fiction interplay, and generates a particular type of stasis and instability that paradoxically results in continuity and interconnectedness. What is more, these stills’ oblique nature, their sometimes seeming randomness, as well as the occasional unobtrusiveness of the threads linking them to the text engage the viewer/reader in a self-reflexive type of reading, which proves seminal in the process of detecting the similarities and constructing meaning. Subsequently, the spaces of stillness created when the viewer/reader is invited to correlate the verbal and the visual—and the ensuing break in the flow of the life story—allow for the photographs to function as portals, shifting between storylines, temporalities and spaces; and, eventually, to highlight the elements that tie diverse immigrant experiences—the history of discrimination and persecution outlined by the verbal narrative —and to consolidate the autothanatographical quality of the novel.

30This is also pertinent to Gilmore’s discussion of “the limit of representativeness.” The involvement of the viewer/reader in the unveiling of the workings of the photo-text and his/her seminal role in the emergence of these common threads leads to the attentive, perhaps even empathic type of reading that LaCapra calls for in his formulation of “empathic unsettlement.” The viewer/reader is exposed to the past and involved in its reconstruction; he/she becomes a witness to the testimony offered by the writer—and his doubles—and partakes in the articulation of the traumatic experience by engaging in a process of interpretation, detecting and acknowledging the presence of affinities and kinship, while at the same time becoming aware of the absences—the numerous other victims—that surface behind the lines. Hence, he/she exercises an “affective aspect of understanding” (LaCapra 102), and productively becomes “a co-owner of the traumatic event” (Felman and Laub 57); an attentive listener who is able to perceive Lazarus’s thanatography in its most essential form: as a reflection of the writer(s)’ fear of exclusion and psychic death.

Concluding Remarks

31The Lazarus Project is a trauma narrative, an elaborate, multi-level account of the immigrant experience, that addresses dislocation and reflects the ensuing melancholy and confusion yet never fully achieves closure. As his memoir reaches its conclusion, Brik is still struggling with his ghosts, he is still striving to reconstruct his selfhood; Lazarus Averbach’s story as well never evolves beyond the narrator’s introductory words: “the time and place are the only things I am certain of… beyond that is the haze of history and pain” (1); the truth about his death is never fully reconstructed and known. The US, connecting the two protagonists as the common fleeing ground and adopted home, is depicted as inextricably bound to a pattern that spans from the waves of xenophobic hysteria that scourged Chicago in the early 1900s, to the modern-time war against terror; enmeshed in a centripetal rationale that spans across the Atlantic and that points to a world where, as Brik notes:

[E]very war has a neat logic: they want to kill us, we want not to die. But with time it becomes something else, the war becomes this space where anybody can kill anybody at any time, where everybody wants everybody dead, because the only way you are sure to stay alive is if everybody else is dead. (185)

32Significantly, as his journey reaches the end, Brik decides to stay in Sarajevo, a place he no longer recognises as home, and writes a letter to his wife saying: “I cannot remember what my life used to be, how I got to this point. I don’t know where everything disappeared.” (287) It has now become clear that, calling from the grave, Lazarus’s voice speaks to Brik not only of liminality but also of vulnerability; a deeply rooted and carefully concealed fear of refugee-hood leading to death.

33Still, contrary to its main characters’ irresoluteness, and despite the perpetuation of grief, The Lazarus Project does respond to the particular challenges presented in the attempt to (life) write trauma, by way of the particular blending of life stories and as a result of a writing mode that reaches beyond bipolar models: through the overlap of fact and fiction, the interweaving of past and present narratives, and the interlacing of media.

  • 9 In his interview to Brad Fox, the writer states: “And this is also how memoir works: I’ll tell you (...)

34Hemon’s objections as to whether this work is actually a concealed autobiography may be easily overlooked, or even dismissed, given his perception of the memoir as a filtered story structured around the writer’s own perception of himself.9 What is of import here is the story itself, the construction of an (auto)thanatography in multivocality, the telling of the traumatic experience through the story of an other, to return to Gilmore, or, as Caruth puts it: “[n]ot… the story of the individual in relation to the events of his own past, but… the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another.” (8) It is thus that the individual is re-connected to a sense of collective identity, and it is so that the writer may act as a representative speaking for a history of victimhood that unfolds regardless of spatiotemporal boundaries and specificities.

  • 10 I am using this term after Liliane Louvel’s explorations of word-image relations and her work on th (...)

35Once the story is articulated and the trauma is addressed, the model promoted by Hemon’s fiction, namely life-writing in photo-textuality, ventures to exceed the “limit of representativeness” and generate the “empathic unsettlement” that will allow viewer/reader to act as a true listener. Much more than a fictional biography, when life writing is performed in the photo-textual mode, viewer/readers are engaged in an active process of discerning between fact and fiction, adjusting their expectations with reference to the ways verbal and visual accounts interact, oscillating through the time slippages in a back and forth motion that resembles the workings of memory; and, eventually, participating in the production of meaning, perhaps even inscribing their own past memory of a traumatic event into the present of the “reading event.”10 It is important to note that this is not simply owing to the inclusion of the photographs in the narrative but rather a result of the two components—verbal and visual—residing in a reciprocal relation of complementarity. “The claim,” Hemon says, “that [photographs] can formulate our historical experience and return it to us as real is false… they can only be there because they are in the context of language… without language their testimonial value is nil.” (Boswell 262)

36In The Lazarus Project Lazarus Averbuch is rescued from oblivion and his memory is brought into the present through his photograph but also, mostly, through the fictional reconstruction of his true story, staged in the writer’s attempt to engage in his own traumatic experience of national conflict and expatriation through the story of another. By putting the elasticity of the photograph into play, Hemon structures Lazarus’s thanatography in the contemporary context of post-Abu Ghraib America, as a means of writing his own pathography and unveiling the ways in which life-writing trauma may address but also represent the resonance of the past in the present and re-connect the traumatised subject to the world.

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Adams, Timoth Dow. Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Baker, Deborah. “Aleksandar Hemon: Interview.” BOMB Magazine. August 2008. n.p. Web. 25 March 2014.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. 1980. London: Vintage, 2000.

Boswell, Timothy. “The Audacity of Despair: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.” Studies in the Novel 47:2 (Summer 2015). 246-266. Web. 15 March 2014.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub, M.D. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

Fox, Brad. “There Is No Real Life.” Guernica. 15 March 2015. n.p. Web. 1 April 2015.

Friedlander, Saul, ed. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution.” Cambridge MA and London, England: Harvard UP, 1992.

Gilmore, Leigh. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Gray, Richard. After the Fall: American Literature since 9/11. Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Hemon, Aleksandar. The Question of Bruno. New York: Vintage, 2001.

---. Nowhere Man (2002). New York: Vintage, 2004.

---. The Lazarus Project. London: Picador, 2008.

---. “The Lazarus Project: One Writer’s Research.” The Paris Review 173 (Spring 2005). n.p. Web. 2 April 2014.

Kaiser, Menachem. “The Exchange: Aleksandar Hemon.” The New Yorker Online. 9 June 2009. n.p. Web. 2 April 2014.

Knight, Lania. “A Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon.” The Missouri Review 32:3 (Fall 2009). 84-101. Web. 25 March 2014.

LaCapra, Dominick. Witing History, Writing Trauma. Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Trauma Question. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Reyn, Irina. “Exile on Any Street: In Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon.” Guernica. February 2010. n.p. Web. 25 March 2014.

Schlack, Tim. “Framing photographs, denying archives: the difficulty of focusing on archival photographs.” Archival Science 8:2 (June 2008). 85-101. Web. 10 April 2015.

Ward, Wendy. “Does Autobiography Matter?: Fictions of the Self in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project.” Brno Studies in English 37:2 (2011). 185-198. Web. 10 April 2015.

Weiner, Sonia. “Double Visions and Aesthetics of the Migratory in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazaris Project.” Studies in the Novel 46:2 (Summer 2014). 215-235. Web. 10 April 2015.

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1 I am referring to Saul Friedlander’s formulation of a non-numerical concept of “uniqueness,” according to which something is unique when it passes a certain limit, when it becomes “an event which tests out traditional conceptual and representational categories.” (3) This formulation of an “event at the limits” carries a special significance, I would argue, in that, by shifting the focus to the event’s ontology, rather than its singularity, it suggests that an analogous experience can be, paradoxically, repeated in history.

2 Apart from the details surrounding his arrival and settlement in the United States, these similarities include working as an ESL teacher, being a magazine columnist, being awarded a grant in order to research his book; also, the references to his photographer friend and their childhood in Sarajevo, as well as the references to his grandfather and wife—Hemon’s first wife was also a neurologist.

3 See especially: Knight, Lania. “A Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon.” The Missouri Review 32:3 (Fall 2009): 84-101; and Aleksandar Hemon. “The Lazarus Project: One Writer’s Research.” The Paris Review 173 (Spring 2005): n.p.

4 Apart from the novel, the two men’s journey generated a website project where Božović presents a larger number of these photographs (about 1200 in their totality) placed alongside quotes from the book. As Božović claims in his introductory note, the photographs “are intimately and deeply connected with the book, but they also speak of something that is beyond its limits.” Accordingly, Hemon himself presents his novel in an online project where, quite interestingly, Božović’s photographs—always accompanied by quotes from the book—are placed so as to create a somewhat different, more overtly connective narrative. At the same time, this project also includes two slide shows of the photographs embedded in the book.

5 In his interview with Menachem Kaiser for the New Yorker, Hemon defines “conditional Americanness” as a state where “the narrator necessarily enters an engagement with America, which is immense and unwieldy. He is worried that the engagement erases large swaths of his selfhood, but there is no other engagement available.” (n.p.)

6 Josef Pronek is the writer’s other alter-ego, a narrator/character who arrives from Sarajevo in 1992 and struggles for survival in the US. Pronek first appears in The Question of Bruno (2001), a collection of short stories, and then reappears in Hemon’s debut novel Nowhere Man (2002) which is centred around him and consists in a series of vignettes-anecdotal stories of people narrating their encounters with the protagonist.

7 Focusing on the Lazarus’s parts of the novel, and considering that this is presented as the narrator’s book, this identification is, arguably, also indicated by the ways in which Brik brings himself into the narrative. This is effectuated through the use of subtle references, for instance, to a teacher called Mr. Brik who “describes Lazarus Averbuch as a faithful and persevering student of a very good character” (61); or Lazarus’s confession to his friend, Isador, that he wants to write a book.

8 This photograph is situated in the frontispiece, before title page and before copyright page. In the website it bears the caption: “the only one who was not me was myself” ( Sonia Weiner notes: The presence of the mirror further introduces the idea of reflection, both in the sense of thought (to reflect) as well as in the sense of ‘reflection,’ which implies duality and ‘the double,’ distance and distortion, and the complexity of distinguishing between the ‘copy’ and the ‘real’ or ‘original.’ (218)

9 In his interview to Brad Fox, the writer states: “And this is also how memoir works: I’ll tell you a story about myself and I’ll edit out all the things that don’t comply with what I think of myself. So story is the overarching or underlying template.” (n.p.)

10 I am using this term after Liliane Louvel’s explorations of word-image relations and her work on the “reading event” that occurs when an image appears in a text.

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Angeliki TSETI, « (Auto)pathography, Photography, Trauma in Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project »E-rea [En ligne], 15.1 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2017, consulté le 26 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Angeliki TSETI

LARCA (Laboratoire de recherches sur les cultures anglophones), Paris 7 Denis Diderot
Angeliki Tseti holds a PhD on Anglophone Studies from the University Denis Diderot - Paris VII, in France, and the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. Her research interests include word-image interactions, with an emphasis on the use of photography in literature, as well as trauma and genocide studies, memory, and historiography. Her writings revolve around photo-literature and the importance of memory and collective trauma in the works of W. G. Sebald, Jonathan Safran Foer and Aleksandar Hemon.

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