"Everything is Illuminated?"
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Houghton Mifflin 276 pages
review by Lee Klein
With the four corner city block paved as to be un-bustable by the offensive line of critical rhetoric en-charged with and or desiring to promote Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated? it is almost as if one slipped the tongue as to say by Jonathan Safran Franzen (or Jonathan Franzen Foer). So therefore it beckons one practicing this most nitro glycerin of disciplines to seriously ponder approaching the volume.
This book has been labeled post-ironic by those ready with a literary sticker like a lazy quality inspector. Nevertheless it is unfair to define a book by a catch-word cast out like a Piscean religious symbol for the see/sea (holy or not). Secondarily as this work segues from deep expanses of flash-back into oceans of magical realism (shetl style) it must be said that while the recognized internationale of trans-temporal innocence is often surreal it less often has irony in its repertoire. Though by qualification alone magical realism is not to be considered ironic it is not necessarily non-ironic either. So in any case the labeling of this particular book as post-ironic seems rather besides the point.
Is this book the breakthrough blockbuster the store windows say it is ? Probably not. Is it an endearing work of appropriate length ? Yes.
Beginning in the opening chapters our young representation of the author narrates in the first person as the character based upon himself. That is in that he is the voice within the chapters which recede into the history of his family abroad. He is then joined in a first person duet by a Ukrainian named Alex. This second young man in the real time action within the book acts as JSF's the character's tour guide.
Further along the two are joined on the road to the shetl by Alex's grandfather and his grandfather's dog (a mangy bitch named Sammy Davis JR.). Together they form a motley search party traveling in the countryside to find the town from which the Safrans originally hailed -- a place which once was called "Trachimbod."
The quartet in turn are attempting to find a woman who may or may not have been married to JSF the fictional version's deceased grandfather (and of whom Jonathan is in possession of a photograph of). We soon discover through the unfolding narrative of the unreal past that the most recent Safran grandfather lived in and was the last of long line of Safrans from the vicinity (the place so named because Trachim B drowned in the
Finally we arrive with the group as they unexpectedly find the spot where Trachimbod itself was. Here they encounter the now elderly woman from the photograph who was said to have befriended the elder Safran. She did so just before he escaped the atrocity which befell almost all of his fellow villagers at the hand of the advancing Nazi army. At this late stage of the book she elaborates upon the climatic events.
The main conflict for which the present day interaction between Ukrainians and Jews acts a cover is the issue of complicity. In Everything is Illuminated? the reader sees the unresolved angst riddled issue played out along both through via the incidental occurrences which befall the players at the travel stops and the unexpected outcome of one of the characters lives.
Finally the work in its depiction of human activity under the specter of doom seems to be indebted to Ellie Wiesel's "Night."