30.7.12

'Everything is Illuminated' by Jonathan Safran Foer

My thoughts on 'Everything is Illuminated' can be summed up quite neatly by Francine Prose, whose book I reviewed the other day:

'To be truthful, some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light. Each of us will meet a different harbinger of personal failure, some innocent genius chosen by us for reasons having to do with what we see as our own inadequacies.'
So there. This book made me feel so insignificant and talentless that I properly downed tools for a couple of days and started to wonder whether I have been completely wasting my time. I was quite overwhelmed by it because it is MIGHTY and ambitious and clever and funny, and made me feel quite stupid, actually, which is probably why it's taken me an age to get around to writing about it. In fact, I couldn't stop thinking about my age and the fact that I am already two years older than Safran Foer when this was published. He was 25.

The story is lead by the narrative of a young Jewish-American, handily called Jonathan Safran Foer, and his journey back to the Ukraine to explore his familial roots there and try and find the women who saved his grandfather life when his shtetl was destroyed by the Nazis in WWII. He is accompanied on his journey by Alexander Perchov, his Ukrainian translator, Alex's father, also called Alex, and a mangy, flatulent dog called Sammy Davis Jnr Jnr.

The narrative takes multiple strands: 

1) Sections from Jonathan Safran Foer's (the character) own novel-in-progress, about past members of his family who lived in the Ukrainian shtetl a long time ago;
2) Narration from Alexander Perchov, the translator, who provides a running commentary on Jonathan Safran Foer's time in the Ukraine, in his own special brand of English;
3) Letters between Alexander and Jonathan after the event, which work well to tie all the strands together.

None of this of course describes the emotional impact of the story, but it does start to give an illustration of the meta-fictional devices that Safran Foer uses to heighten and give massive energy to his work. The writing is nimble and hilarious, and cut through with a type of knowing literary legacy that allows him to make sense of the insensible, I guess, in a very original way. I found it thrilling and fresh, but at the same time I can see how it would make this book an easy target for haters of this kind of meta-fictional audacity.

I'm not saying it is a perfect book. Alexander Perchov comes across, rather unflatteringly, as a bit 'Borat', with his unique English and wild proclamations (my husband actually dumped it after a page, called it nonsense), and preoccupation with sex and masturbation that runs through the book smacks a little of adolescent male given free rein.

However, the positive outweighed the negative for me on a larger scale than I can measure. It was so funny and then so heart-breakingly sad that I felt the tangible weight of all the horrific things that have happened to billions of people in the recent past, and specifically the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust, which is conveyed in this book. I loved also how the generations melded together in Jonathan's stories of the shtetl - there were several moments where I didn't know who we were talking about, or when, as it was so widely and sadly applicable  - and I felt that it gave a good conveyance of locality in the Ukraine. It and him remind me, funnily enough, of Tea Obreht and 'The Tiger's Wife', as they are both dazzling wunderkinds ('The Tiger's Wife' was published when Obreht was 26) who run along similar thematic lines: exploration through Eastern Europe to find specific family members or unearth family secrets, complimented by a magical realist historical narrative thread, with all parts coming together at the end. The impact and aftermath of war also features heavily in both, but that's unsurprising considering that there are few families you could go back through without encountering conflict, particularly in Eastern Europe, where both writers can trace direct links back to.


I feel a bit like something special was happening to me after reading this book and I'm intensely aware that I'm struggling to convey that in this review. I saw a review on Amazon which is basically 'THIS WAS AMAZING, OH MY GOD, I CAN'T TALK ABOUT IT', which echoes my thoughts well. Just read this book, if you haven't. I'll read it throughout my life I imagine, but maybe only when my own work is going well.


Title: Everything is Illuminated
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher: Perennial, and imprint of HarperCollins
Date: 2002
Format: Paperback, 276 pages, and it was very kindly given to me by Nicole at Book Lush.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...