I first bought Everything is Illuminated in 2005 and gave up 10 pages in. I was just out of the bookstore and was swindled out of a pay cheque so I wasn’t in a reading mood.
A year later I saw the film in the cinema, again during a crappy period of my life. Usually when I watch a film before reading a book I will never touch the book again, knowing that it has been spoiled.
Thankfully I picked it up again after a four year absence and I don’t regret it one bit. Actually at this point in time I think that the film does the book no justice whatsoever.
Jonathan Safran Foer (maybe it’s the author himself), an American Jew is on a mission : he has to find the person who saved his grandfather from being killed by the Nazi’s. His companions are Alex, a person who’s command of the English language isn’t great, Alex’s grumpy grandfather and the psychotic dog Sammy Davis jr jr. Together the trio scour the Ukraine in order to discover this elusive heroine. On the way we get culture clashes and mishaps due to generation gaps and social class. Yes they are funny especially when told through Alex’s eyes.
As the book proceeds things get more serious and this time the characters go through a process of self discovery and through some plot twists find out that some hidden family secrets do come out and have consequences on the future.
The plotline is not as simple as I make it though. The novel takes the form of chapters Alex sends to Jonathan with a covering letter which explains his current situation since he as been ‘illuminated’ Jonathan replies by sending him chapters of a novella that he writing; a magic realist tale about his own ancestry and the semi fictional town Trachimbrod, from 1791 to the Nazi seizure of the village in 1941. One could say that the novella also provides clues to fill up the gaps one finds in the novel.
Like Arundhati Roy’s GOd of Small things. Foer want s the reader to discover what is happening and leaves us little hints in the form of a sentence or one of Alex’s letters to Jonathan. After finishe=ing the book do we get the complete picture and become just as enlightened.
Language-wise it is dazzling. Alex’s use of English (as he is using a thesaurus to write) is both charming , blunt and poetic. To have sex is ‘to be Carnal’ and I am very good person becomes ‘ I am a premium person’. Just like Burgess’ Alex in A Clockwork Orange both subvert the norms of language and create an eye opening result.
This is a novel that deals with Love, Memory and History and their importance to human life and Foer does a first class job of binding these aspects into the book’s already overlapping plot. What makes it more amazing is that you do feel like a better person when you close the book.
Everything is Illuminated is a perfect novel. It’s intelligent, a small challenge and completely satisfying and will resonate with you for a long time. Illumination has never felt so good!