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Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is illuminated

October 7, 2009
Jonathan Safran Foer (Photo by Elena Torre, from flickr.com, under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photo by Elena Torre, from flickr.com, under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

He invented stories so fantastic she had to believe.

It’s hard to know where to start writing about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is illuminated, so I’ll just start with a brief description of the plot. It concerns a search in the Ukraine by “the hero” (aka Jonathan Safran Foer) for the woman (Augustine?) who, he believes, saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War 2. He is escorted on this trip by a translator Alex, a driver (Alex’s grandfather, also Alex), and their “seeing-eye bitch” dog, the absurdly named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. This narrative is conveyed to us through three streams:

  • Alex’s (the translator, not the driver) story of the search for Augustine and Trachimbrod;
  • Jonathan Safran Foer’s (“the hero” and searcher) novel-in-progress about the history of his family in Trachimbrod (from 1791 to 1942); and
  • Alex’s (translator, again) letters to Foer about their search and his novel.

So far, so good, but if you have read my introductory post on the book you will know that this is a postmodern book and therefore a bit “tricksy”! And the first bit of “tricksiness” is that overlaying these narratives is the fact that Jonathan and Alex comment on each other’s writing, though we only hear this from Alex who comments in his letters on Jonathan’s work as well as responding to Jonathan’s comments on his work. Alex, then, is the main character in the book – if, that is, it can be said to have a main character. Certainly, Alex is the one whose character develops through the novel – from a rather callow youth who is full of bravado to a thoughtful young man (or “premium person”) ready to take on serious responsibilities.

At first, it is pretty funny – which, if you knew when you started that its subject is the Holocaust, could discomfort a little. I believe though that humour can deal effectively with the dark side, so I didn’t find it disconcerting – and, anyhow, the humour decreases as the book wears on. As Alex writes early in the novel:

I am able to understand now that it was the same laugh … the laugh that had the same darkness as Grandfather’s laugh and the hero’s laugh.

Humour and the multiple strand structure (combined with a convoluted but comprehensible chronology) are just two elements of this novel’s style. There are many others – too many really to cover in a short(ish) review – but fortunately I did refer to several of them in my introductory post. However, one I didn’t mention is Foer’s (the author this time!) use of different linguistic styles to represent the different characters and their strands, and to convey Alex’s growth towards maturity. It is with some disappointment, really, that we see his malaproprisms and other word-misuse (“I wore my peerless new jeans to oppress the hero”) disappear! There is also the magical realism in “the hero’s” story of Trachimbrod: the stories he tells about this shtetl stretch our credulity, but no more perhaps than does the cruelty of the Holocaust which is the point to which the narrative leads us. As the woman (Augustine? Lista? Does it matter?) who shows them what’s left of Trachimbrod says:

It is not a thing you can imagine. It only is. After that, there can be no imagining.

The book covers a lot of ground, including memory, history, place, names and identity, but two ideas that run throughout and that caught my attention are love and truth. “The hero’s” novel-within-the-novel speaks much about love, while Alex’s story of their search explores the notion of truth (though this distinction is not completely rigid). Why this is is not hard to understand when you know their (and their family’s) respective roles in the story: Alex would like to see through the “facts” to the “truth” (for some sort of absolution) while “the hero” would, it seems, like to believe that love can transcend all (to glean something from the wholesale destruction).

You can see the progression in Alex’s thinking in the following:

I also invented things that I thought might appease you, funny things and sad things. (p. 54)

This is a nice story. It’s true, I’m not making it up. (p. 158)

We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred? (p. 179)

I would never command you to write a story that is as it occurred, but I would command you to make your story faithful. (p. 240)

Meanwhile, “the hero” is writing of love: Brod (his great-great-great-great-great or, “very-great”, grandmother) and her love-match with the Kolker in early 19th century Trachimbrod; the time when all the people of Trachimbrod thought they had a novel in them with all these novels being “about love”; his grandfather’s love for the gypsy girl between 1934 and 1941 (the gypsy and the Jew!). One of the most poignant lines of the novel describes love messages made out of war-time newspaper headlines:

…each note a collage of love that could never be, and war that could.

Love – what people do and don’t do for it – is, really, the heart of the book.

It’s a full-on novel, and suffers somewhat from that new-writer problem of trying to do too much: you almost wonder what is left for his second novel. That said, it’s a rollicking read despite the seriousness of its subject – and provides plenty of challenges for the grey matter. I was taken by this little mind-twister about Brod:

She repeats things until they are true, or until she can’t tell whether they are true or not. She has become an expert at confusing what is with what was with what should be with what could be.

This conveys the essential problem of writing about the Holocaust: the sheer horror of it is almost beyond comprehension.

Early in the novel Alex asks “the hero”:

Are you being a humorous writer here or an informed one?

I see no reason why you can’t be both – and Foer, in this novel, has pretty well pulled it off.

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