Frailty in Sarajevo

<strong>The Lazarus Project</strong>

Aleksandar Hemon <em>Picador, 292pp, £14.99</em>


Monuments describe a city, and Sarajevo has many: tall buildings pockmarked with shells, including the old office of Oslobo djenje, the city's newspaper. There are bridges dividing the city, such as the one where a sniper shot down two young women, a Serb and a Bosnian, plunging the city into war, and the Latin Bridge, where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand. You can see the ski slope where Radovan Karadzic held court, pointing out the sites that he wanted destroyed. And there is the bakery where 22 people who had queued up to buy bread were mown down one morning.

In his earlier fiction, the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon has written movingly about the city's siege, which lasted over four years and killed more than 10,000 people, even though he could see it only on television, as he was in America when the madness descended. Hemon wanted to hold on to Sarajevo's integrity, to the seamless city where you would not notice as you moved from the Austro-Hungarian to the Muslim part of town. The city's lives were in termingled, not compartmentalised, as Karad zic sought.

Describing that lively Sarajevo, Vladimir Brik, the protagonist of The Lazarus Project, says that in his city "everyone could be whatever they claimed they were - each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside".

The novel begins in Chicago in 1908, with what is now a footnote in history. One morning, a teenager called Lazarus Averbuch goes to the home of the police chief of Chicago, carrying a letter. In the confusion that follows, the police chief kills him. Nobody knows why he went there, but rumours surface that he was an anarchist. Chicago lives in a climate of fear, where those who are different - in this case, a Jew - are suspect, and anarchists are conspiring to undermine the American way of life.

Brik, Hemon's alter ego, is intrigued by the story. Like Hemon, he was born in Sarajevo and is a writer. Brik is without a job and is married to a neurosurgeon who personifies the sunny optimism and naivety of America. He decides to research the of life Lazarus, and manages to convince a rich couple to back him. With Rora, a photographer he knows from Sarajevo, he embarks on a picaresque journey through Ukraine and Moldova to retrace Lazarus's life. He does not learn much about Lazarus, but does learn much about himself, Bosnia and the human condition.

Hemon writes with characteristic dry humour, coupled with anger. If Woody Allen finds humour in despair, Hemon reverses the process. By focusing on Lazarus, he reminds contemporary America that the fear of the unknown, of the stranger, is ever present.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is based on the true story of Vedran Smailovic, who during the siege of the city played an adagio on his cello on the street for 22 days, in memory of the 22 civilians who died while waiting to buy bread. Steven Galloway's novel hauntingly re-creates life in Sarajevo and one man's determination to cling to a more humane past, but there is a caveat: Smailovic is unhappy with the way he has been depicted, and feels his identity has been stolen.

Smailovic's response raises fundamental questions about how far fiction writers can go in modelling characters on real people. But Galloway's depiction of him is by no means disrespectful. Perhaps the problem is that the siege of Sarajevo is still fresh in our minds, and at such a time memories do clash.

In the loud noise of the trial that has at last begun in The Hague, the soft, sonorous tones of the cello would have remained buried if Galloway had not resurrected them for us, reminding us of the great gift of life, its love, and its fragility. We should celebrate Averbuch and Smailovic, and thank Hemon and Galloway, for humanising our world, and reminding us of the beauty that triumphs over our frailties.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Spies for hire