Everything is Illuminated Paperback – 5 Jun 2003
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'An astonishing feat' The Times
'An astonishing feat' - "The Times". A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a 'blind' old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive - a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down.See all Product description
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The plot: a young American called Jonathan Safran Foer travels to the Ukraine with the photograph of the woman believed to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis and who he wants to find. He employs as guides and translators a supposedly blind ancient chauffeur with his guide-dog, and the driver's grandson, Alex, the translator. The village of Trachimbrod is their destination. So what we get is a magic realism history of Trachimbrod in the form of a novel Foer is writing, dating from 1791 to the arrival of the Nazis in 1941; an account of the road trip and letters from Alex to Jonathan about Foer’s novel and his own tribulations.
The Alex sections are brilliant. His second language English is high trapeze crazy and often laugh-out-loud funny thanks to his relentless use of a thesaurus to poeticise his vocabulary. (“"I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared petite, or not befitting.") But it isn’t just a cheap comic trick and Alex soon becomes not only the most compelling character in the novel but also the most admirable. The history of Trachimbrond unfortunately is hit and miss. Foer letting his imaginative vitality and perhaps his vanity get the better of him. Because sometimes Foer just isn’t as funny as he so obviously finds himself. And because sometimes Foer’s relentless wackiness plummets into whimsy. And because sometimes his determination to create adorable characters waters down into the sentimentality he struggles so hard to avoid.
However, I can also understand why people could hate this mixer-upper of a novel. It is experimental in places, some parts can feel pretentious and utterly pointless and they contribute nothing to the story (which is already so meandering, it can drive you bonkers). The book actually annoyed me at the very start, and in fact has two or three starts, all of them just as annoying, so kudos to JSF for keeping me reading! Plus, 'Everything...' has semi-magical realism strands, or is often simply plagued by juvenile exaggeration. Much of it is thoroughly unconvincing. You have to forever suspend your disbelief, both for the parts that happen in the present, and for the parts that happen in the distant past.
The only sections where, sadly, no suspension of disbelief is required, are the events involving the Nazi extermination of Jewish people, and the clear indication that the Russians and the Ukrainians treated the poor Jewish folk no better. These parts are realistic and convincing and the story is told as tragically and as full-on emotional, I thought, as it ought to be.
All in all, I reckon it's a miracle this novel got published, but I for one am very happy it did. It is good to see that intelligent, unusual, challenging books still get a chance in our commercial, saccharine, short-attention-span culture. 'Everything ...' is an uneasy but very worthwhile read.
By means of a brief summary, let me try to untangle Foer's story and method. He appears to place himself in the story and sets out on a journey in search of a town, Trachimbrod, in the Ukraine, where his grandfather came from, and also someone called Augustine who is said to have saved his grandfather from the effects of the second world war. Foer is escorted on this journey by Alex, a translator, Alex's grandfather and a dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior - named after the late singer and actor Sammy Davis Junior. The search is somewhat futile but Foer discovers important things about his family, Trachimbrod and its people and what happened to the Jews of Trachimbrod during the second world war. The journey and the discoveries are told in two narratives. Foer effectively writes a novel about his family - that has a time span 1791 - 1969. Alex writes a memoir about the journey undertaken in search of Augustine and Trachimbrod. In addition to this Alex write letters, between July 1997 and January 1998, to Foer which comments on the stories both of them are writing and perhaps unintentionally clarifies some of the issues about the journey and Foer's story. Effectively, the letters function as a metatext overarching both Foer's and Alex's stories.
It would be useful to comment on the structure of this novel because this is an important aspect to grasp as it enables an understanding of the novel. The novel's basic structure is one in which the three narratives mentioned above alternate with each other in no particular clear or consistent pattern. However, on another level, much more complex and therefore not easily grasped until well into the novel, is also a structure that is symphonic. Foer presents us with subjects and themes that reoccur in various guises and developmental stages.
So what are the substantial issues that are to be found within the story and structure? Much has been said that this novel is about Nazi atrocities during the second world war. Yes, the issue of atrocities perpetrated against Jews is raised and the two significant passages that dwell upon these issues are touching. However, of much more significance for me are the themes about family connectedness, history, belonging to a people and place and how these shape individuals. Foer traces family history and in so doing makes discoveries about place and culture.
It would appear that part of Foer's aim is to tease and test the reader to get him or her to think about the process of writing a piece of fiction. In a letter from Alex to Foer, Alex says: "If I am sounding like a thinker this is an homage to your writing". Moreover, Foer renders his novel in a style that could be described as pyrotechnics and razzmatazz. He uses different typographical styles to express various emotions and responses. He bends the rules of syntax and grammar to extremes. The text is littered with malapropisms and the coining of new nouns and verbs almost as if to express in a new way familiar experiences. All this is innovative and dare I say exciting to some but I found it distracting from the story rather than enhancing it.
Foer's novel is a rag-bag of style and approach to writing a novel. Along with its modernist tendencies with some justification a claim has been made that Foer writes in the tradition of magic realism. Arguably, it could be said that Foer also writes in the absurdist tradition. He presents bizarre characters in ridiculous situations where Foer's comedy of life is grim, and involves extreme language and violence. If like me any reader gets a sense of alienation then don't be too surprised.
It seems to me that to get a grip of this novel an enjoy it one must be taken in by its humour, which was not to my taste, and enjoy the challenge of Foer's use of language, narrators and shifts in time.
Of course the novelist should aim to make his or her material new. By definition this is a key aspect of the novel. Foer's writing and method if not completely new is certainly refreshing. However, the question has to be asked: did Foer's elaborate method enhance the novel as a whole? For me the answer is no. That is not to suggest that the novel is not worthy of reading. It is worth reading especially if you like writers who play with the language and the structure of a novel.
I struggled with deciding on what star rating to give Everything is Illuminated. In the end I decided to give it three stars not so much because I liked it but because Foer dares to be bold with a debut novel and make it new and fresh like the early twentieth century novelist and artist he seeks to emulate.