Everything Is Illuminated
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Penguin Books, 2003
Winner, Guardian First Book Award, 2002
Is it possible that I found this book hilariously funny – well at least the first few chapters – yet didn’t enjoy it at all? Maybe I am suffering from the anti-climatic effect of having heard so many good reviews in advance or maybe it’s because I didn’t feel it was anywhere near as good as Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but for something called Everything is Illuminated, it certainly didn’t “light up my life”.
The book consists of three interweaving strands. One strand is a narrative by Alexander (Alex) Perchov, a 20-year-old Ukrainian who lives with his parents, grandfather, brother and his grandfather’s dog who despite being a female is called Sammy Davis Junior Junior and is now the second hilarious canine character I have encountered in my reading for this challenge (see my post on Three Men and A Boat). Alex’s father works for a travel agency that specialises in catering for American Jewish people who want to visit Ukraine and Poland. They are engaged by a young American Jew called Jonathan Safran Foer (yes the same name as the author) to transport and guide him around Ukraine in search for a woman named Augustine whom Jonathan believes saved his grandfather’s life when the Nazis invaded Trachimbrod, a Ukrainian shetl.
The second strand of Everything Is Illuminated consists of letters from Alex to Jonathan sent subsequent to the latter’s travels to Ukraine and which concern a book that Jonathan is writing about the experience and which Alex appears to be editing/commenting on.
Both Alex’s narrative and letters to Jonathan are written in a form of English that is one of the many literary novelties in the book and perhaps the most successful. Alexander has been advised by Jonathan that when translating his words into English he should use a thesaurus and replace any words that “seem too small or not befitting”. Alex takes this a little too literally as is evident from the opening lines of the book:
“My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me! because I am always spleening her…”.
I gather that “spleening” has been used to replace “annoy” or “irritate” although this is never explained. Other examples of replacements are “money” becoming “currency”, “small talk” is “miniature talking”, “work” is “toil” and so on. Alex also struggles with idioms so “sleeping” is “manufacturing Zs”, being excited is “manufacturng a brick wall of shits” and being a happy person is a “tickled-pink person”. A particularly hilarious point in the book is when Aex asks Jonathan about whether his train ride to Lvov “appeased” him to which Jonathan replies “Oh God, twenty-six hours, fucking unbelievable” and Alex thinks “This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic”.
Another laugh-out loud part of the book occurs when Alex’s grandfather, who believes himself to be blind although he is not, takes the dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior with him as a “seeing-eye dog” for the journey around Ukraine with Alex and Jonathan. Alex creates a t-shirt for the dog to wear to inform others that she is an “Officious Seeing-Eye Bitch of Heritage Touring”. By the time, Jonathan arrives, however, the dog has “masticated” most of this t-shirt so it just reads “Officious Bitch”. Despite the fact that Jonathan is afraid of dogs, he is forced to share a seat with the animal who alternates between throwing herself at the windows, farting, and trying to mount Jonathan because he is wearing cologne which turns her on. If this is how the adventure of the three men and the dog begins so you can just imagine how it continues…
One of my favourite passages is where Grandfather has gotten lost and has become rather angry. Alex must “translate his anger into useful information” for Jonathan gven that Grandfather is supposed to be the tour guide. Hence Grandfather’s “Fucking fuck fuck!” when he becomes lost is translated by Alex to ”Oh, he wants you to look at that building it is very important”. Believe me, this tour makes the Griswold’s family vacations look more like a Brady Bunch holiday.
So far so good, I hear you say, so why didn’t I enjoy it? I can mainly blame it on the third strand of the novel which offers what Foer has called a “folkloric” history (read: magical realism) of Trachimbrod from 1791 to 1942. According to wikipedia, Trachimbrod is a fictional version of Trochenbrod, also known as Sofievka, a Jewsh farming village that existed in the Ukraine from 1835 until 1942. The Nazis established a ghetto for Jews there during World War II before massacring almost all of them. The village itself was also virtually wiped out by fire. Notwithstanding the parts of Foer’s “history” that specificaly deal with the Nazi invasion and destruction of “Trachimbrod” which actually made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, the rest of this strand of the novel was laborious and unengaging. I suspect this is because it contains numerous Jewish in-jokes which for me, not being Jewish, went straight over my head. It also seems Foer intended this reaction in his readers as I think is evident by the fact by Alex’s comment upon reading the fictional Jonathan’s account of Trachimbrod: “There were parts that I did not understand but I conjecture that this is because they were very Jewish and only a Jewish person could understand something so Jewish”. Ah! It seems I have more in common with Alex than just his name!
I think Everything Is Illuminated should be read just for the literary gymnastics alone but also to see which side you fall into in the obvious divide among readers between those who love this book and those who don’t. I have even had a brief discussion about this through blogging already with The Reading Ape who preferred this novel to Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close whereas I had the opposite reaction. Also check out this rather cool site: http://www.whoisaugustine.com/ which is a multimedia companion to the book.
Where to next for The Literary Nomad? Argentina!
The Literary Nomad xx
General reading value: 2.5/5
Armchair travel value: 2/5
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Religion: Eastern Orthodox Christianity