Home / News / LocalRSS Feed
Foerís novel illuminates a people
July 27th, 2007
The following is part of a series of columns in which local community members write about their favorite Jewish books. This week’s column is by Adi Lev-Er, a former Chronicle intern who will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” — one of the most unique, captivating books I have ever read — is a tale of the history that shapes who we become.
I found myself at a loss whenever people saw me reading this book and asked what it was about.
I could try to describe this exquisite novel by stating that its plot revolves around a man scouring Ukraine with the help of a comical touring company in search of the woman who years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
I could say that the story takes place alternately in the present and centuries ago, telling the story of the Holocaust survivor by tracing his ancestry.
Immediately, however, people would begin forming their own impressions. They might try to pin down this indefinable book, to create an image in their minds about what it would be like to read, how its story would unfold, all based on other stories they’d read and heard — the archetype of the “Holocaust story.”
I was in this unfortunate position mere weeks ago. A number of relatives and friends had told me to read “Everything is Illuminated” — they said it was incredibly moving, even a favorite book. It sat right in my room, its bright blue and yellow cover catching my attention from the bookcase. All signs were telling me to read this book. But I couldn’t.
Somehow, I just felt like it was not the right time. It can be difficult to start an especially painful book, and Holocaust books can be some of the most tragic. It was just too easy to pick up that book that I’ve read a thousand times, the one that never ceases to put a smile on my face, or to get my heart beating faster, my adrenaline pumping.
Well, needless to say, I finally put aside my “fall back,” meaningless summer reading and dove into “Everything is Illuminated.” And I was stunned.
Calling this book another Holocaust story, or describing it offhandedly with a short sentence, does not do it justice.
Foer’s writing is as moving as it is unpredictable. One chapter can be surprisingly funny, and the next is the most heartbreaking I have ever read.
His writing can be snappy, choppy, flowing, or melodic; his chapters can follow a logical beginning-middle-end pattern or they can fly between 1997, 1791, and 1943.
As Jonathan (the story’s main character) begins his search for the woman who helped his grandfather resist capture by the Nazis, he joins with a Ukrainian touring company that happens to consist of a young man (the translator) and his grandfather (the driver).
The translator, Alexander, is overtly, yet falsely, confident. He is expressly proud of his extremely broken English and brags about his countless sexual escapades. The driver is haunted by his experiences in the war and by the death of his wife. He claims that he has gone blind and falls into a tormented sleep whenever allowed to sit still.
This unlikely trio is propelled forward by their mutual desire to accomplish their mission, as well as by each individual’s unique past and deepest yearnings. As they proceed on their journey, Foer expertly allows each character to unfold before the reader’s eyes.
Despite first impressions of Alexander and his grandfather, layers and layers of experience, upbringing, and personality are slowly peeled back over the course of the story — sometimes in little tidbits, sometimes in shocking revelations.
The result is a book filled with more completely developed characters than any other I can think of. And in these characters’ every interaction and every conversation there is something for any reader to relate to, or at least to find meaning in.
It can seem as though portions of the book are inserted randomly, as though they don’t serve any purpose within the larger story. But upon completion of the book, it is clear that every line and every word were planned to perfection.
Everything fits together into a mosaic of human emotions in their rawest forms — fear, heartbreak, grief — in colors that you would think would clash, but instead beautifully complement and enhance one another.
Foer’s writing style is incredibly unique, and his ability to form sentences that are utterly gut wrenching and undeniably beautiful astounds and inspires me. His book will call your preconceptions into question, and open your eyes to what shapes us as human beings.
“Everything is Illuminated” may not describe the horrors of concentration camps; it may not be heavy with pages of physical pain. But its words are powerful enough to convey the tears and bloodshed of millions.