How to write novels about history

In a long and astute essay in The New York Review of Books, not easy to excerpt because it makes its argument very gradually and carefully, Elaine Blair suggests that one half of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project raises questions that the other half neglects (subscription required for link):

What is it that we’re looking for, the novel seems to ask, when we visit the sites of historical atrocities, or read about them in novels, or watch them reenacted in movies? What kind of feeling can a novelist writing about a fifty- or hundred-year-old war crime hope to elicit in his contemporary readers? Visceral disgust? Pornographic interest? Solemn indignation? Is the best he can hope for historical clarification, or a pointed analogy to current events?

The most immediate implication of these questions would seem to be for Brik’s Lazarus story itself, and it is the great disappointment of the novel that the subtle and provocative questions suggested in one half of it seem to go unheeded in the other. Hemon seems to be hedging his bets, raising doubts about the nature of the Lazarus project in the Brik chapters, while in the Lazarus chapters the narrator bustles along as if none of these questions existed, confidently peering into the characters’ souls, speaking in their voices, and, it turns out, exploiting historical catastrophes for emotional effect.