Book #65

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man -- also named Jonathan Safran Foer -- sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past. 


It took me a while to understand the fragmented style of this novel - I almost gave up on it after only a few pages, but I am so glad I persevered. I fell in love with it, and then it broke my heart.

Half of the story is written by Alex, the translator. He doesn't have an excellent grasp of the English language, and his contributions were quirky, amusing, and more and more  touching as we progress through the novel. I had such a love for his determination to tackle the English language, and felt a strong pride as I saw him get better and better at his wordsmithing. My favourite of his contributions occurs on the first page:

“As for his name, it is Little Igor, but Father dubs him Clumsy One, because he is always promenading into things. It was only four days previous that he made his eye blue from a mismanagement with a brick wall.”

The other half of the novel is written by Jonathan and details the history of the village his grandfather grew up in, until its destruction by the Nazis in 1941. These entries are usually very surreal, giving us glimpses of the past and future, of things we can’t understand, but will come to understand in time. The style reflects the title - the present illuminates the past, and the past illuminates the present; everything is illuminated in time. 

There is such humour and sorrow here, contrasting vividly and perfectly.  The last eighty pages or so are completely heartbreaking, beautiful and tragic. They put things into perspective and illuminate everything.

I've never known a book to make me laugh and cry so much. Despite some initial requirements for perseverance, I came to a comfortable understanding with the style and began to really enjoy it. Foer has created something incredibly clever here (being unable to match this cleverness, I can’t help but feel this review isn’t doing him the justice he deserves); it’s a wonderful, chaotic account of a terrible time in history, and a nod to the importance of interpreting and learning from our world’s horrors.