An emigre from Sarajevo finds his life in the US a strange mix of promise and failure. He is married to a successful, attractive American woman; he gains a certain amount of fame because he writes a newspaper column about the immigrant life. But he is unemployed, and unable to find the hook that will help him turn his writing to better effect. He becomes fascinated with the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish emigre who was shot dead in 1908 by the then-Chief of Police of Chicago, the same city where the narrator lives. Finally, an opportune grant gives the narrator and a photographer friend from Sarajevo the chance to wander about Eastern Europe, following the trail of Lazarus' flight from the Russian pogroms and incidentally finding his way back home to Sarajevo. It should be a voyage of discovery, an attempt to make his mark in literature and to find some sort of parallel to his own life in the story of this young man who fled death and prosecution only to find them waiting for him in the land of the brave.
Instead, the narrator and the narrative, almost perfectly poised at first, begin to run off the rails. We are treated to increasing bouts of ennui as the narrator unravels the story of his uneasy, increasingly doomed marriage and his sense of displacement and loss. At first the narrative in which Lazarus' story is recreated alternates with the present-day narrative in perfect balance. After a while, past and present start to bleed into each other. Eventually, the narrator finds some sort of redemption, but even that is visited with a bitter aftertaste. From being a simplistic analogue to the present-day terrorist scare in the US, the Lazarus narrative take on multiple shades of tragedy and ambiguity, as we see the different strategies immigrants employ to assimilate or at least be left to live in peace.
It's a virtuoso performance, this gradual stripping away of a too-tidy structure. There is no simple parallel between past and present, truth and fiction (this is especially important to bear in mind in light of the parallels between Hemon's life and his narrator's). And yet, they can illuminate in each other in ways that may not seem obvious at first. To confront your identity often results in finding it unravelling before your own eyes; our lives are often built on verities that we take for granted because to examine them would be to expose their frailty. If all this seems to have very little to do with the plight of immigrants or the continuing distrust of swarthy, Eastern-seeming foreigners in the USA, it's because Hemon has written a book that contains its overt themes, but also somehow pushes beyond them to grapple with universal human dilemmas. An impressive, if sometimes uneasy and partly flawed novel.