Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Disclaimer: Anyone with writing aspirations shouldn’t read Everything is Illuminated. It’ll throw you into a deep depression from which you’ll struggle to recover to see such talent in a debut novel (especially from an author who was just 24 at the time).
The book is loosely based on the story of author Jonathan Safran Foer’s grandfather who escaped the mass execution of the Ukrainian Jews during World War Two. However, it is purely fictional despite Safran Foer casting himself as one of the novel’s two protagonists. Based in the Ukraine, the story fluctuates between Alex’s narrative, Alex’s letters to Jonathan and Jonathan’s novel about the residents of Trachimbrod, the made up town in which his grandfather was raised. Who is Alex? He is the frustratingly loveable translator who, along with his grandfather and dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior, travels with Jonathan to find the woman who saved his grandfather’s life.
Alex is one of the great highlights of this story. At first his bizarre use of English (with the erroneous help of a thesaurus) is difficult to grasp: “His train was dilatory,” he “disseminates much currency.” Safran Foer’s character development of Alex is superb and once you’re used to his style it becomes sweet and comical. Alex also causes embarrassing outbursts of laughter at inappropriate moments, often while riding the tram. In a letter to Jonathan he writes:
“I have made efforts to make you appear as a person with less anxiety, as you have commanded me to do on so many occasions. This is difficult to achieve, because in truth you are a person with very much anxiety. Perhaps you should be a drug user.”
Similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Safran Foer’s story is a magic realist family epic and many episodes, such as Trachimbrod’s continuous rain, are a salute to Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. There’s a disturbing thread running through the story, which we know is leading to the extermination of the Jewish village, much like the eventual disappearance of Macondo (although in a very different circumstance).
It’s a story within a story within a story. Jonathan is the author, as well as the character in the novel. Like Sophie in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, Alex believes he’s an autonomous character and his critique of Jonathan’s Trachimbrod novel reinforces that. However he discovers that he too is just a figment of the author’s imagination and even though as the reader you know this, it’s heartbreaking when Alex becomes aware of it. He reads a page of Jonathan’s diary describing something that has not yet happened:
“Oh his father became so angry, so full of wrath, and he told Sasha he would kill him, and Sasha told his father that he would kill him, and they moved at each other with violence and his father said, Say it to my face, not to the floor, and Sasha said, You are not my father.”
As Alex reads he feels “angry, then sad, then so grateful and then angry again.” He realises Jonathan is writing his story as well.
While the book is often hilariously funny there’s obviously a dark undertone; it deals with the killing of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis and the brutality of their fellow Ukrainians. This has drawn some serious criticism about the historical basis for Safran Foer’s work. As a story it’s intriguing and disturbing but the historical events it’s based on are clearly to be taken with a grain of salt.
Everything is Illuminated has attracted vitriolic reviews and heaps of high praise – read it and decide for yourself.