January 31, 2017

Everything is Illuminated

by Jonathan Safran Foer

My copy of Everything Is Illuminated was a gift from one of my good friends from the book club, given as a birthday gift some years ago. On the note that came with it, he wrote that he gave it to me because it was on my wish list. To be honest, however, I had no idea what the book is about and put it up on my wish list only because it was the debut novel of a very young writer - only in his 20s when the book was published - and I was, as usual, curious. Only now when I picked it up did i realize that the book has its roots in the Holocaust, a topic I've always been interested in.

The main characters are Jonathan Safran Foer (uh, yes, the author's name), a young writer traveling to Ukraine to find - with the aid of only a map and an old photograph - Augustine, the woman who purportedly helped his grandfather escape the Nazis; Alex, his Ukrainian translator who hilariously botches the English language; Alex's "blind" grandfather, who drives for them; and Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, the grandfather's seeing eye bitch. They go on a road trip to find Trachimbrod, the town where Jonathan's grandfather, Safran, hails from - the same place where they think they could find Augustine.

The narrative was a bit difficult to get into because there are alternating story arcs, timelines, and POVs. Jonathan is a writer, so there are chapters which read out to be parts of the book that he is writing, which in turn is based on the history and people of Trachimbrod. (Trachimbrod is based on the real Ukrainian town Trochenbrod or Sofiowka.) There are letters from Alex, writing in murdered English ("manufacture Z's" for "sleeping") from Ukraine, addressed to Jonathan in the United States, prior to and after the latter's visit. And then there are parts written from the POV of Alex narrating their travel to Trachimbrod.

At first, the odd names and the bizarre situations (found mostly in the fictional storyline written by Jonathan) confused me. If you're the sort to easily give up on a book because of that, you wouldn't be expected to make it past the halfway mark. The shifting POVs, too, will likely add to the confusion. The trick, however, is to read the entire book continuously - not in one sitting (unless you have the time!) but to press on every day, perhaps, just to make sure that the story stays with you and that certain details won't be so easily forgotten. In time, Alex, Jonathan, and even Sammy Davis Junior, Junior grew on me, and I plowed on especially when I realized that the novel deals largely with the extermination of Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War.

My favorite character would have to be Alex because of the way he molested the English language. Mind you, he was mighty proud of his English vocabulary, but it was funny how he had to find literal and direct translations for certain words, which are contextually off-tangent. I thought it was Jonathan who would find clarity in the end but I was mildly surprised that it was Alex who did. And I was totally fine with that.

Perhaps other people would find the novel too gimmicky, but it was all right with me. I think the author knew how confounding his work is, hence the title. It seems like a promise, that everything will be illuminated later on. But you need to pay attention; otherwise, you will miss it.

"This is love, she thought, isn't it? When you notice someone's absence and hate that absence more than anything? More, even, than you love his presence?"

Read in January 2017
Rating: ★★★
Book Details: Trade paperback

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