Aleksandar Hemon

Article Bio Works Projects www
civil war, conflict, homeland, memory, migration, racism, Society, war
Written and spoken word (novel, short story)
Europe, Southern, America, North
Bosnia and Herzegovina, United States of America
created on:
October 5, 2009
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since October 5, 2009. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
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Aleksandar Hemon
Aleksandar Hemon © Velibor Bozovic


Cultures will become Bilingual

A skinny young man in a suit. He sits on a chair. His hands are resting on his lap. The suit is wrinkled. His eyes: closed. He has a large protruding Adam´s apple. It seems as if he´s sitting there in his socks. An elegant gentleman in a top hat and dark coat stands behind him with his hand resting on his head. But only if you look closer can you see a small hole just below the little finger, just above the ear. That’s what Aleksandar Hemon did—he looked closer. For the author born 1964 in Sarajevo, half-Bosnian, half-Serbian, the photo would be the starting point of his new novel, "Lazarus": "The point of departure is the historical event which took place in Chicago in 1908, when a young Jewish immigrant, whose name was Lazarus Averbuch, went to the door of the Chicago chief of police for some reason that is unknown, and knocked on the door and was killed on the doorstep by chief Sheepy, because as soon as he saw him, he knew he had to be an anarchist, because he looked like a Jew or a Sicilian. That is, his skin was dark. And this is an historical event; it was widely reported in 1908, not only in the Chicago newspapers, but all over the country, and it had various implications. And I found that story in a little historical monograph, and read about it, and I found the photo of Lazarus sitting there in a chair with the policeman behind him holding him up. And Lazarus had a little blood hole in his skin. As soon as I read the story, as soon as I saw the photos, I wanted to write about it, and I wanted to find a way to include the photos in the book."
Hemon does not use the story of Lazarus Averbuch, the 19-year-old executed by the Chicago Police and presented as a hunting trophy, as material for a simple historical novel. As in real life, he serves as a point of departure, as a starting point and foil for the action which unfolds in the present. His narrator, the Bosnian Vladimir Brik, takes a journey together with a friend to East Europe in search of clues about Lazarus Averbuch. The search for clues turns into a journey to himself and his cultural past. The fictional character Brik resembles the author and his life history in many ways. As in his real life, the protagonist is visiting the U.S. when he finds out about the war at home and decides to remain in exile. And like the author, his hero Brik is a writer. Still, his protagonist has to fight for success, unlike his creator, who won the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award in 2004 for his writing. Nevertheless, Hemon bluntly admits these and other parallels, but not without also distancing himself from his character: "The narrator´s situation is similar to mine, but I am not Brik, he is different from me in so many ways. It´s just the similarity of the situation. Brik and Rora, his photographer friend, go on a research trip to discover Lazarus´ story. And although I did go on a trip with a photographer, we went so I could write a story about Brik and Rora, we went together to write a script for that part of the book."

During this journey, Brik contemplates the New and the Old World, says Hemon. About his life in the U.S., his social position, his lifestyle, his relationship to his American wife, a successful neurosurgeon. But does his uneasiness with his life in the New World make his book an anti-integration novel, as one German reviewer recently postulated? Hardly. Whoever talks to Aleksandar Hemon won’t hear any pessimistic thoughts about integration. Quite the contrary. His hero Brik, in an internal dialogue, takes a journey in search of his roots, which is also a dialogue between cultures. A dialogue says Hemon, which is now taking place everywhere and in which translation plays an integral role: "I think it is not impossible to communicate with other cultures. And I do not mean occasionally, but continuously and constantly. Translation becomes a fundamental need for a functioning society. I also think that the situation in which translation happens, or communication happens within the same person, is more and more common. You know, it becomes daily practice for many people. I write in two languages. I write fiction in English and I write a column for a magazine in Bosnian in Sarajevo. There is an increasing number of bilingual authors. Very soon it will be of no particular interest to anyone if the writer is bilingual, because there will be so many of bilingual writers. There will never be just one language again in a culture. There will always be more than one language. Cultures will become bilingual. If they are not already."

Author: Heike Gatzmaga


Born 1964 in Sarajevo to a Serbian mother and Bosnian father, Aleksander Hemon went into exile in 1992, after learning of the siege in his hometown while on a cultural exchange program in the U.S. He has been writing in English since 1995, and has been published in The New Yorker, Granta and The Paris Review, among others. His short story collection “The Question of Bruno” was published in 2000 in eight countries simultaneously. His subsequent novel "Nowhere Man" ( 2002) was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Both books were received by both readers and critics enthusiastically. In 2004, Aleksandar Hemon received a Genius Grant from the Macarthur Foundation. In 2009, "Lazarus" was shortlisted for the International Literature Award of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Stiftung Elementarteilchen. The author lives in Chicago.


Love and Obsctacles

Published Written,
Riverhead Books

The Lazarus Project

Published Written,
Riverhead Books

Nowhere Man

Published Written,
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

The Question of Bruno

Published Written,
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

International Literature Award -

Haus der Kulturen der Welt

(01 January 09 - 30 September 09)


Homepage of the author