Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin, 10th printing, 2002
Genre: literary fiction, Holocaust fiction, roman à clef
Synopsis & Review: An American named Jonathan Safran Foer comes to Ukraine to search for Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during World War II. His guides are Alex Perchov, a young man enamored of America, and Alex’s grandfather, who insists he’s blind and refuses to speak to Jonathan because he is a “spoiled Jew.” They are also accompanied by Grandfather’s dog, Sammy Davis Jr, Jr, a most officious seeing-eye bitch. From Lvov they travel into the Ukrainian countryside, searching for the shtetl of Trachimbrod—or Sofiowka, depending on whom you ask. Alex, translator for “the hero”—or Jonathan, or the Jew—is our narrator for the story, as we’re reading his version of events, which he has written as a story and sent to Jonathan for criticism. In exchange, Jonathan sends Alex his own novel, the story of his family and Trachimbrod, from the eighteenth century till its destruction by the Nazis. The two novels-within-the-novel are linked together by Alex’s letters to Jonathan, which amplify both narratives. Together, the three men–and Sammy Davis, Jr, Jr–find Trachimbrod, where they learn what happened when the Nazis came. There Alex learns his own past, too, which is tied into Jonathan’s journey, a journey that quickly becomes Grandfather’s as his story moves backward through time to 1943 and Jonathan’s novel moves forward to that point.
I decided I had to read Everything is Illuminated after we saw Liev Schreiber’s excellent (but different) film adaptation last year. It was a near-perfect juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, and I wanted to see whether that magic was in the book as well. And it was. I will admit, however, it was difficult for me to get going. I picked up the book and read “An Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Journey,” and it was hilarious; the movie’s opening is the Overture almost word for word, and it’s great. Then came the first part of Jonathan’s novel about Trachimbrod, and I wanted to kill myself. You see, I dislike magical realism. (Okay, I enjoyed Bellefleur, The Master and Margarita, and The House of the Spirits, but those are exceptions.) It’s too precious, too self-consciously fey for my tastes, and it invariably bores me or pisses me off. I am obviously a barbarian. And Jonathan’s novel-within-the-novel is magically real all over the place; it was so relentlessly, whimsically annoying that I gave up on the book for a few weeks because it spleened me so rigidly. But I am very, very glad that I picked it back up.
Alex is one of my favorite narrators probably since ever; on the surface he’s a comic foil to the seriousness of Jonathan/the hero, with his thesaurus gone mad linguistics, but he’s heartbreaking, too. (Despite the overt humor, the entire novel has an air of melancholy.) Jonathan’s character seems more of an introspective foil to Alex’s exuberance, one that brings out Alex’s better qualities, forcing him to develop and change. And though it begins as Jonathan’s novel and concerns his family history, Alex and his grandfather are the principals in the novel, which addresses the problem of how to live with yourself, how to love and how to remember, how to face harsh truths.
The closer to the end Jonathan’s novel gets, the better is is, though, and the less kitschy and excessively whimsical. Once we get to the novels Trachimbrod wrote, or The Book of Recurrent Dreams, and The Book of Antecedents, the Trachimbrod story becomes enjoyable, despite the tragedy we know is about to unfold there. In fact, by the time I reached the last fifty pages, I could hardly bear to stop reading; I kept trying to read by streetlight on our way home from the fair (never a successful method for me), unable to put it down and close those powerful, beautiful, awful, tragic scenes.
It’s funny, it’s beautiful, it’s horrifying, it’s exasperating, telling Eli the differences between the book and the movie made me cry. Very highly recommended.
Read also: Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, The River Why by David James Duncan, Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Cover: The front cover I liked. It was kind of stark, yet convoluted, and very eye-catching. Then I discovered that the back cover is exactly the same, only reversed both physically and chromatically. SCREW YOU, GRAY318, JACKET DESIGNER. I picked this up and tried to read it upside down too many times to count. It gets old fast.
Note: I wanted to excerpt something from the massacre description (pages 184-187), because of its immense power and beauty, but it was too painful. Watch for it if you read it, though.
My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother. Father used to dub me Shapka, for the fur hat I would don even in the summer month. He ceased dubbing me that because I ordered him to cease dubbing me that. It sounded boyish to me, and I have always thought of myself as very potent and generative. I have many many girls, believe me, and they all have a different name for me. One dubs me Baby, not because I am a baby, but because she attends to me. Another dubs me All Night. Do you want to know why?
02 August – 31 August