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Everything is Illuminated Is an Uneven but Unforgettable Novel

December 5, 2009

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt April 16, 2002

As for me, I was sired in 1977, the same year as the hero of this story. In truth, my life has been very ordinary. As I mentioned before, I do many good things with myself and others, but they are ordinary things. I dig American movies. I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson. I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa. Lamborghini Countaches are excellent, and so are cappuccinos. Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements, notwithstanding the Inebriated Kangaroo, the Gorky Tickle, and the Unyielding Zookeeper … That is why I was so effervescent to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer. It would be unordinary.

This is the voice of Alex Perchov, one of the narrators of Everything is Illuminated, a quirky and often endearing Ukrainian twenty-year-old who is enthusiastic about American culture and proud of his sexual exploits which are, in fact, figments of his own fertile imagination. He has learned English with the help of a thesaurus, creating a monologue that prompted Francine Prose of The New York Times Book Review to write: “Not since … A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.”

Alex’s father runs a small tour service, driving Jewish Americans to the places where, several generations ago, their relatives died in The Holocaust. Jonathan Safran Foer has come from America, searching for the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Alex’s grandfather, haunted by his own memories of World War II, is his tour guide and driver, and Alex serves as translator. The three of them set off, with a dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, the “seeing eye bitch,” adopted from “the home for forgetful dogs,” to find Jonathan’s ancestral village, the shtetl of Trachimbrod.

They travel the Ukranian countryside, beautiful but still ravaged by World War II, 50 years ago. When they reach the site of Trachimbrod, they find an old woman who has made herself the curator of the shtetl’s memories; her home is filled with boxes of photographs, bits of jewelry, and other remnants of what was once a thriving community.

Alex’s narrative about their “very rigid search” for Trachimbrod, and for the woman who may have rescued Jonathan’s grandfather, is one of three strands intermingled throughout this novel. The second is a heavily fictionalized narrative Jonathan is writing about his ancestors and the history of Trachimbrod. It is a blend of storytelling, in which the past and future are often tangled, magical realism, and assorted thoughts on art and life. It begins when Jonathan’s great great great great great grandmother, Brod, is rescued from the river as an infant, the only survivor of a horse and wagon accident. It continues through the life of Jonathan’s grandfather, a man with an unusual disability and a prodigious history of sexual exploits.

This narrative is full of odd, quirky characters. These include Yankel the disgraced usurer, forced to wear an abacus bead as a reminder that he cheated someone. He lovingly raises Brod and as he ages, fearing he would lose his memory, he scribbles notes about his life on his ceiling with her red lipstick. It also includes the mad squire Sofiowka and The Kolker, who survives an accident at the flour mill with a blade in his head.

Throughout this fictional history, things are also vitally important, beginning with the detritus of the wagon accident which surface in the river when Brod is rescued and the bead Yankel wears to remind him of his disgrace. These things, including prayer beads, shawls, glasses, and other objects, fill much of people’s lives and signify remembrance. This is reflected in Jonathan and Alex’s odyssey, in present time, in the way the old lady from Trachimbrod carefully saves the possessions of Holocaust victims in piles of boxes, just in case someone comes searching.

Alex reads Jonathan’s fictionalized history and discusses it in his letters, and this provides the third strand of the novel. It’s an interesting addition to the book, because in effect, the novel reflects on itself and explores its own meaning. We also see Alex’s character develop through these letters, as he sheds some of his silliness and prepares to take responsibility for himself and his beloved younger brother.

Jonathan Safran Foer is a tremendously gifted writer, with the courage to try something new and different. At moments I was awed by the story and by his writing. I really liked Alex’s voice, and I quickly got used to his quirky use of the English language. I loved much of the magical realism in Jonathan’s fictionalized history, and I admired the themes of memories, forgiveness, and coming of age.

On the other hand, I found the novel quite uneven. I ran the gamut from being absorbed by the writer’s brilliance to barely wanting to keep turning the pages. It especially fell down during Jonathan’s fictionalized narrative. At moments, it was splendid, but at other times it seemed self-consciously clever and disjointed. Some of the sexuality also disturbed me. I am all in favor of not shirking from explicit sex, when it fits the story, and I enjoy a bit of gratuitous literary smut here and there. But some of this sexual content was just bent.

Overall, I thought this was a unique and compelling story with memorable characters, that illuminates the the second world war and the holocaust and how it affects us several generations later. It shows us an empty field where a shtetl stood for generations, seeing births, marriages, feuds, friendships, and deaths, obliterated by Nazis in one afternoon. This image is more powerful than anything that could be expressed in words. It also does a beautiful job of exploring the theme of remembrance, through myriad layers, and I admired the way the author combined quirky humor with somber memory and reflection. This is definitely a novel I will remember.

Read Another Review of This Book At: Books and Other Stuff

Rating:

Thoughts on the Movie Adaptation: The movie recreated one strand of this complicated novel, the journey Jonathan, Alex, and Alex’s grandfather made to Trachimbrod. It offered excellent acting and gorgeous imagery, including a luminous moon shining on the river and a lush field of sunflowers.

While it followed Foer’s novel closely in many ways, it made radical changes. Like the book, it revealed secrets about Alex’s grandfather, who had been hiding his own memories of World War II. However, the grandfather’s story is completely different; I am still puzzling over why screenwriteiters changed it.

The movie also created a new facet to Jonathan’s character by making him a “collector,” a young man with the quirky habit of taking things that evoke memories — photos, his grandmother’s false teeth, dirt from her grave — and bagging, labeling and saving them. I think this may have been done to capture some of the elements of Jonathan’s fictionalized history, which isn’t presented in the film . It reminded me of its emphasis on multi-generational memories, and on the things that make up much of people’s lives. When asked why he collected all these objects, the film version of Jonathan said, “I’m afraid I’ll forget.” It reminded me of the way Yankel, in the fictionalized history, scrawled his memories on his ceiling with lipstick. I also think the movie’s authors wanted to reinforce the theme of remembrance which was explored so richly in the novel.

I liked the novel and the movie equally but, for me, they were very different. The book offered incredibly rich, though uneven, narratives about history and memory that could never be duplicated on screen. The film offered the advantage of not having to wade through the bent and self-consciously clever parts, of course. It also created gorgeous imagery and made the characters more three dimensional and human, somehow.

Another thing I admired about the movie, which I saw for the first time several years ago before picking up the book, was the way it revealed the history of antisemitism in Europe. It seems that too many accounts of the Holocaust treat it as if it were disconnected from the rest of Europe’s history, as if Hitler somehow conjured the evil of antisemitism. Like much of Eastern Europe, Ukraine had a long history of progroms and other forms of persecution. Jonathan pointed out, in a very apt and poignant moment, that at first many Ukrainian Jews came to the Nazis to protect them from the Ukraine.

I recommend this movie, though it’s not for the squeamish. Take a peek at Roger Ebert’s review of this film. I agree with his comment that this is a movie that “grows upon reflection” — it also benefits from a second viewing.

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