Monday, March 10, 2008

Books: Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran-Foer

I decided to read this in spite of the "Ugh. I hate Jonathan Safran-Foer." I hear every so often. I don't really know why anyone would hate him, unless they were terribly jealous. Everything is Illuminated isn't a perfect book, but it's damn near close, and the author was a mere 26 (yes, exactly what I'm just about to be) when it came out, which makes me feel terribly behind.

The novel is a kind of fictional (semi-fictional?) memoir (argh, he's even stolen my genre right out from under me! Or does this only speak to the timeliness of said genre, or perhaps the solipsism of my generation?), in which the eponymous "hero" (but not the narrator) takes a trip to Ukraine with little more than a map and a photograph, searching for a mysterious Augustine, who protected his Jewish grandfather from the Nazis, thus enabling that grandfather to move to the US and sire the eponymous hero's father.

And this is where the brilliance comes in. The hero's story is told not by the hero, but by his Ukrainian tour guide and translator Alex, in epistolary form. Alex writes letters back to Jonathan, after the trip has ended, enclosing chapters describing their journey. These packets are interspersed with sections written by the hero and sent to Alex, which are historical fictions describing the hero's ancestors living in their shtetl in the 18th century (his line begins with a hyper-intellectual, malsocialized girl who is mysteriously birthed from the Brod river, and raised by an tender, sentimental, neurotic (Jewish!) old man).

But wait, that's not the brilliant part. The brilliant part is the diction of Alex, who writes in a madcap, babblefish/thesaurus-speak, in which "rigid" always replaces the word "difficult" by way of "hard," idioms are consistently mangled, and a longer, more awkward word is always used in place of the more simple and obvious choice: (E.g. "I must eat a slice of humble pie for not finding Augustine, but you clutch how rigid it was.")

Some readers may love this book for the Holocaust connection (toward the end, there are semi-lengthy descriptions of the nights the Nazis came to the Ukrainian villages to root out the Jews, and at the novel's end (SPOILER!) Alex's grandfather, who has been along for the trip, driving, kills himself out of grief over his complicity, which led directly to the death of his old Jewish friend), and while that certainly lends it some emotional credibility, it was, for me, the least interesting part. Many readers may love this book for its imaginative pictures of the shtetl, which features two congregations (the Uprights and the Slouchers, who might directly correspond to today's Orthodox and Reform Jews) and a synagogue on wheels that is moved regularly as the chalk-drawn line separating the holy from secular portion of the village shifts, and appreciate this as clever commentary on the state of Jewish culture and religion today. Being a bad Jew, I couldn't really care less about either of these things; language may be my first god. The book is brilliant because of the way the author renders Alex's speech and letters.

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