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Everything is illuminated mostly takes place in Ukraine, The main character in my opinion is the translator Alex Perchov, The book is written as a collection of letters, Alex Perchov writing about what happened in Ukraine and commenting on his writing and commenting about the story written by Jonathan.
In the story Alex and his grandfather, who work for a company that shows Jews their heritage, they are tasked to pick up Jonathan from the airport and help him find the destroyed town of Trachimbrod and the girl who helped Jonathan's Grandfather escape whit the help of a picture
While the book starts funny whit Alex introducing himself it immediately becomes apparent he is not all that experienced whit English, this leads to some humorous sentences, while the start is funny and a bit absurd however once you progress into the book you learn more about the characters and their dreams and regrets, it becomes increasingly more sad as you realize their situations.
The book does an excellent job of making you experience a plethora of emotions, making people feel emotions trough words on paper is definitely an art and this book is an interesting read.
I have a feeling before I start that any description I try to make of this book will fail to do it full justice. And that by trying to pull apart the threads and give you some gist of what the story is wrapped around that I might spill more information than the author ever intends you to have as you open the first page and meet your narrator. But I will do my best to keep plot details to a minimum, and try instead to give you a flavour of this refreshingly unique novel. The jacket tells you nothing of the story, no brief synopsis, just a quote from the Times declaring it ?A work of genius. A new kind of novel ? after it things will never be the same again, it will blow you away?. And others have obviously agreed with this praise, because it won the Guardian First Book Award for 2002. It was on these merits that I purchased and bought the intriguing looking novel. And purely luck that it came to hand last week when I needed a new companion for the train. Sometimes it?s nice not to know what to expect. And what I got was a roller coaster ride, sometimes emotional, confusing, funny and incredibly sad. More than that, it avoids the clichés that the subject matter makes dangerously easy, and is well written from start to finish. Interested? On the first page we are greeted by our narrator, Alex. He starts off narrating in character, and he doesn?t finish to the very last page. He is a young Ukrainian man, impossibly ambitious and deliciously unique. His story is told in the mangled English of a foreigner, peppered with strange words dragged from a thesaurus, so deciphering him can be an amusing task. Alex introduces us to his family, three generations in the same house, and quickly cuts to the germ of the story to unfold: The American. The American is a young man, Jonathan Safran Foer, who is on a quest to discover more about his own family roots, embedded in rural Eastern Europe. Circumstances push he and Alex together, as searcher an
d inexperienced guide. The search becomes one that infuses both Alex and his grandfather, and brings to light details of hundreds of loves and lives. Past, present and future mix and mingle as three threads of story telling are begun. The first of these is Alex?s witty and endearing telling of the trip with Foer. Packed into an old car for hours on end, with the blind grandfather driving, Alex playing up to the American, and Foer himself being abused on the back seat by Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the stinking seeing-eye dog that he is utterly terrified of. Try not to laugh at her slobbery backseat antics (see title). Alex is narrator and translator. Through him we know everything, and see the gaps that the American struggles with. Parts of this narrative are genuinely hilarious, the misunderstandings and cultural differences make for warm and funny reading. Interspersed though this story are chunks of a history of a small village, where Foer?s family originate from. This tale, part fiction part fact, bounces along randomly from the discovery of a wagon crashed into the river in 1761, up to the second world war. Bits of it are delicious, the very early history taking on a kind of magical-realism in the text, the characters are brilliant, their lives painted with feeling and irony. I like a novel that can make the ridiculous seem perfectly believable, and this pleased me no end. The later parts of Foer?s grandfather are painful and yet still compelling to read. I loved the parts detailing the minutiae of everyday life in the Shetl. It is so frank and yet desperate for remembrance, for all tiny details to live in through the written word. The third thread binding the novel together are letters from Alex to Jonathan, which cover the period of the writing of the novel, after the trip. These are again warm and funny, with flashes of darkness and a better insight into the part in the story that Alex and his grandfather play. Foer dallies
around with present day anti-semitism, but without preaching. Through these letters we see pasts affecting futures, and to some extent Alex becoming a man before our eyes. The resulting novel is a delight to read, and with every page turned, new revelations bore into you, pieces falling into place in the confusion and overlapping webs of story. I found myself completely hooked, losing hours at a time lost in the misty past with a village of endearingly mad people, and with a part of myself falling in love with Alex as the tales unfold. This novel somehow manages to rise above the everyday, it?s so original and funny in composition, and even through the most gravely serious of events, it never loses that edge, never descends into easy cliché and emotional overkill. Everything from start to finish is done with a wash of irony, and an enviable balancing of comedy and tragedy. If you have, as I do, a weakness for great stories told with an even greater linguistic genius, then this is something you need to investigate. Everything is Illumiated by Jonathan Safran Foer, published by Penguin for a very reasonable £6.99
Fresh out of college, Jonathan Safran Foer, a young American Jew, went to the Ukraine with a faded photograph showing a woman who was supposed to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He had planned to write a report on this journey, but when nothing came of it and he had to return empty-handed, he did not despair, no, he sat down and created the situations he hadn't experienced, he peopled it with fictional characters and gave them a history reaching back several generations. 'The world I create in writing compensates for what the real world does not give me.' (Gloria Anzaldua, American writer) By doing so he created an original piece of literature for which he got the Guardian First Book Award in 2002. What is original about the book? It can't be the plot because there are no new plots to be invented, different literary critics count in different ways, some say there's only one plot at all, others count three, seven (convinces me most), twenty or thirty-seven plots, but more there are not and will never be. (This means that plots can't be plagiarised, only the way a story is told can) So it must be the presentation in which Foer excels, the way in which he tells us his story. The first chapter is told by Alex, a Ukrainian student of English. 'I had performed recklessly well in my second year of English at university.' Of English? He's obviously learnt it more from watching MTV and studying the thesaurus than from his university courses. 'I have handsome hairs, which are split in the middle . . . I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs . . . Many girls want to be carnal with me . . .I am a premium person to be with.' He introduces his family: his grandfather (called Alex, too) who's decided to be blind after his wife's death (this doesn't hinder him from driving a car) and has therefore got a seeing eye bitch called Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior
, which his father 'received from the home of forgetful dogs'. His father (called Alex, too) 'toils for a travel agency, denominated Heritage Touring. It is for Jewish people . . . who have cravings to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and Ukraine. Father's agency scores a translator, guide and driver for the Jews, who try to unearth places where their families once existed'. Grandfather Alex also used to work there and when the American Jew Jonathan Safran Foer (!), a student of the same age as Alex, the narrator, is to come, Father Alex decides that Grandfather Alex and Son Alex will drive him around and help him find the town Trachimbrod he is looking for. Alex is 'effervescent to go ... and translate ... It would be unordinary'. The beginning is certainly odd, it seems to be the beginning of a script for a Ukrainian road movie with historical/political undertones. Sounds good to me and I turn the page only to find myself in a completely different story. The first sentence of the second chapter begins with 'It was March 18, 1791 . . .' 1791? Without any advance warning we're thrown into the story of the Ukrainian shtetl Trachimbrod and learn about the very unusual birth (a passing horse-drawn carriage falls into the river and together with a lot of flotsam a newborn baby appears on the surface, other human beings are not found) of Jonathan Safran Foer's great-great-great-great-great grandmother Brod. We meet some weird characters indeed; the third chapter leads us deeper into the life of the Jewish shtetl, we get to know the strangest events and the most far-fetched details no reader in his or her right mind can be interested in. Either we throw the book into the bin now or we go on reading hooked by the sheer power of the written word. It is Sheherezade's way of story telling in 1001 Nights (nowadays to be found with authors like the Colombian
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Anglo-Indian Salman Rushdie, the German Gunter Grass) After 14 pages in the shtetl we're surprised again, chapter four is a letter written by Alex to Jonathan; after his return to the USA Jonathan sends chapters of his work in progress about his (invented) ancestors to Alex asking him to comment on them. He's received the first two chapters (the ones we've just read) and writes, 'I do not have any additional luminous remarks, because I must possess more of the novel in order to lumin'. We learn that Jonathan comments on Alex' account of their travel through the Ukraine, but throughout the novel Jonathan's remarks are never quoted directly. Later we'll see that Alex reacts to Jonathan's suggestions and reworks his text, whereas Jonathan never does so with Alex' suggestions. So we have three story threads which are intricately interwoven. Why has the author decided to write the novel this way? From an interview: 'Things are more fragmented now than they were before. Certainly information is coming in smaller bits. Partly there seems to be a lack of patience that we might once have had. . . And why is that? I'm not exactly sure why it is, but the symptoms are evident everywhere and they are evident in literature. Part of my desire to switch voices is a kind of impatience. . .It has something to do with the way we live now.' Does the fictitious Jonathan find the woman and the town of Trachimbrod? The three men do find a very old woman who may or may not be the one they're looking for, Alex doesn't understand the situation whereas his grandfather seems to share a secret with her. She promises to lead them to the place, but they stay at her house for so long that it is pitch dark when they arrive. What they find is *nothing*. In the middle of an empty field stands a memorial stone commemorating the 1.204 Trachimbroders killed at the hands of Ger
man fascism, not a trace is left of the town. I found this part of the novel so moving although it's told in Alex' bizarre English which one can't read without grinning that I stopped reading for some days, I imagined the scene and was overwhelmed. You may think that I've told you the whole plot now, but that isn't the case, we're only on page 189 (from 276). Due to the fact that the novel consists of three threads there is no real plot and no real climax. The following chapters deal again in detail with the life in the shtetl through the centuries and Jonathan's imagined ancestors up to the bombardment of the Luftwaffe. Why go on with this family saga now that we know how horribly it all ended? The descriptions are very lively, we can't but develop feelings for the people, the 1.204 Trachimbroders don't remain an anonymous number, by giving them a story we can get a glimpse of what the 'final solution' ('Endlösung' in the Nazi terminology) meant. Then there is grandfather Alex who has altered his biography for himself and his family, but his past reaches him during the journey to Trachimbrod. A terrible secret connects him with his place, it is responsible for his violent reaction when he is told by his son that he has to drive there, but later he opens up and accepts his past. How can he cope with the memories? 'Everything Is Illuminated' is also a novel showing the development of a young person, we watch Alex mature and grow up, his blind admiration of the 'hero' Jonathan from the adored US of A turns into a critical evaluation of the latter's character. The novel is an emotional roller coaster if there ever was one! It is rare that I agree with the blurbs on the covers of a book, but in this case they're all correct. To quote a few: Marvellously inventive. The novel is by turns laugh-out-loud hilarious, heart wrenching and downright b
rilliant/Subtle, profound, fantastic and boldly imaginative/Hysterically funny and gravely serious. All true! When I reviewed and praised a novel by Alan Isler (Kraven Images), a member commented, 'So many novels I have read in the past have been written by the Jewish about the Jewish. Seems like maybe you don't have to be Jewish to get published ... but perhaps it helps.' What utter crap! This novel is not brilliant because it has been written by a Jew, it is just brilliant.