Jonathan Safran Foer took an introductory writing course whilst a freshman at Princeton ran by Joyce Carol Oates who took an interest in his writing, saying he had: “that most important of writerly qualities, energy”. This observation is spot on – and for those readers who enjoy narrative pyrotechnics and manic energy in the style of Dave Eggers, Everything is Illuminated is most definitely the book for you. Published in 2002, and winner of that year’s Guardian First Book Award, the story traces the journey of a Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer to the Ukraine, in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi destruction of his family’s shtetl – or township, named Trachimbrod – during WWII. The search is facilitated by his local interpreter, Alexander, Alexander’s supposedly blind grandfather, and ‘Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior’ – the grandfather’s supposed guide dog – or “Seeing Eye bitch”.
The story is constructed in two arcs, with Jonathan Safran Foer’s high-energy magical-realist novel-in-progress – which tells the story of the people of the imaginary Trachimbrod in Ukraine where his forebears are from – and a straightforward, but equally humorous account of their travels, written by his interpreter Alexander, whose interpreting skills are not up-to-scratch. He boasts that he is ‘fluid’ in English and each sentence is littered with wild attempts at writing good English, but they betray the use of a ‘fatigued’ thesaurus without any real, first-hand experience of English. He is excited by the chance to work: “… I was so effervescent to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer. It would be unordinary.”
There is much ‘reposing’ (sleeping), things are often ‘rigid’ (hard or difficult), ‘currency’ is used instead of money, and things are not so much wonderful as they are ‘majestic’. Good things and people are ‘premium’. And Alex signs his letters ‘guilelessly’ rather than faithfully. And this is not even the ice atop the iceberg of translation transgressions. This comical translation yields a great deal of fun, where absolutely nothing is ‘unordinary’, but some will find that Alex doesn’t quite ring true – a real person trying to learn English might make mistakes of tense and quickly ape any English they hear with their ear. ‘Reality’ is sacrificed here for the sake of comedy, which I enjoyed, but others may not.
Meanwhile, Safran Foer’s story arc captures the hilarious and odd townsfolk of Trachimbrod, where there is a balance between the Jewish Quarter and the ‘Human Three Quarters’. This arc commences with the death of Trachim B, in 1791, whose wagon has rolled on top of him in the river, pinning him to the bottom. There is much debate amongst the people as to whether to proclaim anything – it seems proclamations are very important – the candy-maker saying they need a proclamation … “not if the shtetl proclaims otherwise” corrects another(!) In amongst the wagon’s rising detritus a baby is found – none other than Safran Foer’s great-times-five-grandmother.
The two story arcs move in opposite directions: Safran Foer’s starts way back in 1791 and moves forward, whereas Alex’s begins in the present day and travels backward to find out the truth of what his grandfather did in WWII. This structure and interplay works well and is one of the successes of the book. Like Dave Egger’s A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, Safran Foer’s narrative bristles with verve, energy and wit. Reading Safran Foer is like having a marching band trump through your room with symbols clashing and trumpets blaring. No-one can deny the brash, brute-force energy of it and its willingness to test the limits.
Laughter is never far away when Jonathan arrives in Lvov on the train to be met by Alexander, who describes the meeting:
“Your train ride appeased you?” I asked. “Oh, God,” he said, “twenty-six hours, fucking unbelievable.” This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic, I thought.
The knowing and wink-wink letters from the ‘guileless’ Alex to the ‘hero’ are rife with suggestions on how to make the story better, as well as questions over whether the story should be so funny given the sad events it depicts. Alex writes:
“We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? The both of us? Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred?” … and after suggesting alternatives, he adds: “I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem.”
But the life of the story is not going to be easy or ‘excellent’. When they arrive where Trachimbrod once stood, in the dark of night, Augustine says: “It is always like this, always dark”. It is as if they are physically stepping into the dark past and the end of the shtetl.
Some sense greatness in Safran Foer’s style, whilst others point to a overuse of devices and pretension. And yet others will sit somewhere in between, enjoy and go along with it to spot all the styles and cues of authors past – such as Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, Dave Egger’s narrative exuberance and pyrotechnics, and Günter Grass’s wonderful The Tin Drum whose protagonist Oskar hides beneath a relative’s skirt – just like a character in Safran Foer’s novel. I find myself in the later camp, and whilst budding authors naturally tend to echo the styles of authors they in turn admire or borrow ideas or images to suit their own story, I’m less convinced of other reviewers’ claims of Safran Foer’s ‘startling originality’ and statements to the effect ‘that the novel will never be the same again’. The Dilettante eschews such over-exuberance! That said, there is much to admire, and given that Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass are two of my favourite authors, reading something excellently written, humorous and poignant that also reminds me of them was a very enjoyable experience.
It is a hard task to sustain such energy for the duration of a whole novel, but Safran Foer manages it. His climactic remembrance of past evil is well executed, and the memory of it will live long, although others have pointed out that it reminds them of Sophie’s Choice but lacking its emotional knockout punch. What does ring true is that whilst this is a story of Jewish history and the ‘Final Solution’ inflicted by the Germans upon European Jews in WWII, Alex’s grandfather rightly states at the beginning of this scene: “Just because I was not a Jew, it does not mean that it did not happen to me.” For the truth is that when Evil occurs, it occurs to us all.
For a gushing review, see: The Times’ (UK): Luminous Talent in the Spotlight.
For a more balanced review, see one of the Guardian’s reviews.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.