Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is not a realistic book though it has one big toe dipped in historical fiction and another dipped in magic realism. At least not the kind of realism that borders on incidents so close to history the reader can’t see the line of invention, and not the kind of fantasy one recognizes as a fairy tale. The plot is unlikely, the scenes improbable, and the characters resemble the broad strokes of sit-com personalities. Yet I loved this book because in all its silliness, absurdity, and exaggeration is a reflection of truth we usually find in satire. But this book isn’t a satire either.
Foer based his book on a journey he took to Ukraine shortly after graduation from college. Young and inquisitive, he went to Europe in search of the woman who allegedly saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. That he never found her didn’t stop him from writing about the doppelganger Jonathon Safran Foer who goes in search of family history. The alter Foer as writer creates the mythical story of the found shtetl in tandem to the story of the fictional journey to Europe in search of his roots. Yes, a bit confusing, and I had to suspend my sense of reality and history to buy the whole premise. I did so willingly because Foer’s voice is so inventive and strong, he made me believe it was all possible even when I knew it wasn’t.
Guiding Foer on his quest is the young Russian translator, Alexander Perchov, whose mangled English provides sophomoric humor. Using an old dictionary, he chooses words that get close to what he means and yet are laughably far from making sense. For instance, Alexander explains his “many friend dub me Alex.” He calls his own blind grandfather retarded and while the old man displays odd prejudices and behavior, he is in fact retired, and also appears to be able to see quite well. Alex takes Foer, whom he calls “the hero,” along with his grandfather and a smelly dog, in search of the woman Augustine, who may know the location of the ruins of the shtetl Trachimbrod (an actual shtetl destroyed during World War II) and who may have saved Foer’s grandfather.
In between the meandering journey through Ukraine, both Alex and Foer are writing the history of the shtetl, with Foer correcting Alex’s version while he writes his own. Yet it is Alex’s mangled writing that gets closer to the heart of the story than Foer’s more accurate but blander version.
The parallel story of the shtetl Trachimbrod is presented as a fairy tale village with two shuls, people who live on opposite sides of a line that may or may not be imaginary, and that seems to be slipping precariously toward oblivion. A glass wall in one shul separates villagers who are connected to each other by strings, reminding us of how tenuous are all human connections. An infant girl falls into a river and is saved from drowning, and this child may be the ancestor of Augustine whom Foer is seeking. As romantic as this version is, the real town did in fact suffer oblivion during the war. Thus the entire book drifts back and forth between two tales propelled by miscommunication and a sublime approximation of truth that can only be accomplished by events skewed as if seen in a fun house mirror.
A favorite quote is this one: We should remember. It is the act of remembering, the process of remembrance, the recognition of our past. Memories are small prayers to God, if we believed in that sort of thing.
Jonathan Safran Foer lured me into understanding our world with new insight. He kept me reading and re-reading the story, laughing, trembling, and knowing how important is our memory of who we are, so we know how far we’ve come, and how much further we must yet go. Everything is in fact illuminated but the glow may be only a reflection of something else.
Everything is Illuminated won the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year, the National Jewish Book Award, and the New York Public Library Young Lion’s Prize, among other recognition.
Other books that were serious contenders for E:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
East is East by T. C. Boyle
Empire Falls by Richard Russo
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Eventide by Kent Haruf
Exodus by Leon Uris
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
I look forward to learning about your favorite E fiction books.
Book cover image courtesy Google images and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt