Read: January 2008
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Any novel which takes its title and central concept from a Milan Kundera novel has a lot to live up to. And sometimes, in this startlingly original and diverse debut novel Jonathan Safran Foer exceeds even an optimistic readers wildest dreams. Such is the dexterity and invention of his writing that one gets the impression there are no challenges to which he couldn’t rise: Everything is Illuminated is absolutely fantastic.
I barely remember the last time I savoured every word of an entire novel. From the hilarious opening pages in which Alex introduces himself in his uniquely translated English – “My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.” – to the inevitable conclusion to their “very rigid search,” this is a novel which will draw you in, strip everything from you and leave you ravished and wanting, pleading for, more.
The plot is multifarious in the extreme but essentially follows a character named Jonathan Safran Foer as he arrives in Ukraine to investigate his family history. He hires a local tour agency and sets off in search of the village of Trachimbrod and the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazi’s fifty years before. Accompanied by his translator, Alex – America obsessed and who speaks English as though he has swallowed a thesaurus but never heard anyone actually speak it, - his ‘blind’ grandfather, and their ‘seeing-eye bitch’ Sammy Davis Jnr, Jnr, their journey into the heart of rural Ukraine takes them into the past, a past hidden from view by fifty years of concerted and deliberate forgetting. You could say this is a novel about the holocaust, but in reality it is not. Like Art Spiegleman’s exquisite graphic novel, Maus, it is about how the past effects the present, and how we are defined by the ways in which we remember and deal with the horrors of the past.
There are three concurrent plot lines, woven together, each illuminating and offering commentary on the others. First we have the actual journey, recounted in his beautifully mangled English by Alex, hilarious, shot through with his own peculiarly profound descriptions and eye for the heart of the matter. Then there is Jonathan’s family history novel of Trachimbrod, brilliantly imagined, full of bizarre magical realist twists, religious writings and intense, slightly otherworldly characters. Finally there are Alex’s letters to Jonathan, now back in America, commenting upon each of their novels, offering oversight to the work as a whole and a pleasing post-script to the main action of the plot.
But do not be put off by this confusing summary; it all makes more sense when you are reading it. Brought together by the authors amazing ability to hold multiple themes in the air and bring them together seamlessly, it is a beautifully written, hilarious and moving novel which will illuminate the reading of anyone who chooses to pick it up.
The oft used criticism for Everything is Illuminated is that the author is being too clever: that his invention and wit and conceptual scope are the results of a smart-alec show-off, the kind of intellectual posturing which fiction can do without. But when on earth did being clever become such a faux pas? There is nothing more commendable than an author willing to experiment with their writing, to reach for the stars and try and say as much in as meaningful a way as possible. Perhaps it is because the prose is so eminently readable that his intellect conflicts with some. Because it is when the simple meets the profound that this novel really illuminates the room. I read much of this in the bath and frequently wanted to jump up, suddenly enlivened with a phrase or idea, and shout ‘eureka!’ For suddenly the world was that little bit clearer. There are some beautiful phrases, beautiful in how they relate to the themes of the novel, the characters and the plot. They are not easily recreated because they do not exist in and of themselves, but are made great by the novel in its entirety, every single word and phrase eventually draws together, circular and profound. From the slow evolution of Alex’s language to the subtle fissions forming along the fault lines of history, Everything is Illuminated replicates itself throughout. The tone fits the events, the characters evolutionary arc delineates the emotional heart of the novel, the humour makes possible the tragedy. The relation between humour and tragedy is a close and fascinating one, with each used to shed light on, to illuminate, the other. For not only does humour make it manageable to glance at the tragedies of the holocaust but those self same tragedies demonstrate just how hollow and fragile the humour can be. Nothing is set in stone, ideas evolve and develop with the intense experience of the characters, and the reader is invited along for the duration. For example, early on, in his letters Alex writes:
“I know that you asked me not to alter the mistakes because they sound humorous, and humorous is the only truthful way to tell a sad story, but I think I will alter them.”
Then, later in the novel, Jonathan offers the other interpretation:
“I used to think that humour was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is…but now I think it’s the opposite. Humour is a way of shrinking from that wonderful world”
Because what begins as a very funny, witty and irreverent novel is slowly overtaken by a gloomy appreciation of history and they are transformed in ways that can never be reversed.
“‘There is time for all of them,’ I told him, because remember where we are in our story, Jonathan. We still thought we possessed time.”
And in a sense this is the point of the novel. As each of the characters takes up their pen to try to shed light upon the experiences of the past, it is the process of writing which makes them stare right into the past, to understand their life through the process of viewing it. As Alex says: “With writing, we have second chances.” And echoed in history comes the repeated phrase from Trachimbrod, “We are writing, we are writing, we are writing.” Conserving the past so as to live in the present.
One thing Everything is Illuminated cannot be accused of is understatement. Very little is left to the imagination of the reader, or to speak for itself without having its purpose comprehensively enunciated. But, though this usually annoys me, here the vast, brash, luridly grandiose intentions of the author come shining through. It is a novel that could only be written by a young writer, vast and iridescently, fearlessly, inventive, it left me wondering when I would read a novel as good again. I have spent the last week flicking through the pages, desperately trying to assimilate it all, reminding myself of an event here, a phrase there. Perhaps I will even read the book again, immediately, afraid to forget a single detail.
For in a novel which is all about memory, the one thing I can say for certain is that I shall not forget it in a hurry. As Alex sums up at the culmination of the excellent movie adaptation:
“I have reflected many times upon our rigid search. It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out. Like you say, inside out.”
10 out of 10