About Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: A young man arrives in Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a 'blind' old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy David Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive - a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down...
My two centsI read this a few years ago and distinctly remember I couldn't get into it because one of the main characters, Alex, tells the story in mangled English. I remember too that I skipped most of these Alex-narrated sections, kept reading, and eventually finished it with a feeling of "I missed something important." I guess that's to be expected when you skip through a book like that, so I was willing to give this book a second chance.
My reread went very well. I was finally able to understand what the storyline is, which consists of two parallel stories (which explains my confusion): that of Alex and his grandfather and that of Jonathan Safran Foer. These two stories converge in an unexpected way which in turn leads to a rather brilliant conclusion. Can you tell that I liked this?
Without any spoilers, I'll go into some of the reasons why I enjoyed this book and you can decide if it's something worth pursuing.
The storytelling is unconventional and affecting. For two storylines to come together like it does in this obviously called for some thought for it to come to fruition, otherwise it could be total mess. I am not going to go into the details of the plot because I know it will spoil things for those who want to read this.
Now, intersperse these two arcs with bits and pieces of anecdotes and folklore, writing culled from old books, and a few more substories. It's distracting, yes, it's enough to make the head spin, but I was ready and willing and I found the experience quite exhilarating.
Then, about the tone, where do I begin? This is alternately funny (butchered English, things lost in translation, a horny dog) and then it's choke-me-up serious. I'm glad I read this slowly because the emotional swings can make one slightly nauseous.
Did I turn you off or on? (mangled English anyone?) I enjoyed it but I think this can be construed as messy and overdone.
Characters to warm up to. This book takes its time letting you get to know the characters. I loved how Foer slowly peeled away the layers of romanticism to reveal such deeply feeling characters. There is more behind Alex's initial bravado, the tough guy exterior of Alex's grandfather, and the aloofness and alienation of Jonathan.
Thought provoking and rather intimate subject matter. I also really enjoyed the fact that this deals with very difficult subject matter in a respectful manner; it's certainly made its mark in the genre of Holocaust literature. But like The Book Thief (probably one of my favourites!), I didn't really give genre a thought as I got lost in the story, because, really, the heart of this book is the family, and beauty and horrors of family histories.
Family histories are a sticky thing to poke one's nose into. On the one hand, one wants to honour the memory of family members by documenting truthfully. But oh the dilemma of finding out that the truth is less than pretty, sordid, or even downright disturbing? How far does one go in presenting one's family members in a truthful light while honouring them? How do we protect our families' reputation blameless when the past itself is tainted? Is this even possible?
There was one specific idea that also resonated with me: memory as a sense. While I immediately saw a similarity to the famous lines in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, I thought it felt oddly similar to the idea of genetic or ancestral memory where people have amazing and inexplicable in-born abilities or predispositions or knowledge at an extremely young age. In other words, memory can be passed on through the generations.
Jews Have Six Senses
Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks — when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain — that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?
- pp. 198-199
Verdict: This has the potential to be a powerful read on many levels. It took me a second read for me to appreciate it, to be affected by it. I urge you not to get distracted by all the fireworks or go ballistic with your editing pen. Dig into the heart of story; this is about the family, looking back on the family past, and eventually moving forward with an appreciation of one's personal history.