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Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

June 23, 2011

This novel starts out like a fairy-tale, and never completely leaves that literary domain. Beginning in an unnamed town in an unnamed part of Eastern Europe, and starting out with a humorous though violent death that somehow manages to weave its way through two hundred years of history and act as the starting point of something completely original and absolutely moving, you don’t know what to think about it until well past the first hundred pages.

And by then you’re enamoured.

Everything is Illuminated is the story of the history of Trachimbrod – a town split in two in Eastern Europe. And then it is the story of a trip taken by a character named after the author to Eastern Europe to find a town named Trachimbrod. And then it is the story of the correspondence, by letter, between a character, named after the author, his tour guide during his trip to Trachimbrod. It is in fact all of three of these, told through a half dozen different narrators spanning two hundred years.

The story that it tells – of a thriving small town with a bustling Jewish population, of a bizarre friendship where a lost Eastern European young man finds himself in the wilderness of the Ukrainian Steppe, of that same man who argues for his right to leave his father as a result – is absolutely compelling. And somehow so tightly constructed, so imbued with humour, that it fits together just perfectly – like watching the pods of water collect in the vein of a leaf just before the weight gets to be too heavy and the water is released to the ground below. It is something special.

It is also told in a totally different kind of language. On the back of my edition is a quote from a review, suggesting that the English language had not been so radically used and changed since A Clockwork Orange. That is quite the statement. And though what is accomplished here in terms of language is not quite up to the standard set by Burgess in his masterpiece, it is totally disorienting at times – until you learn the language that is used. One of the narrators is speaking as an English as a Second Language User. Another is using truly language reflecting the Judaic community. And the English that is used is so frequently used to produce conceptual and emotional outrage and understanding that traditional sentence structure is occasionally foregone. This is largely done to the author’s credit – the result is the sense that what is interpreted could only have been presented as it had been.

Everything if Illuminated is also nothing that you expect. It is a fairy tale – somehow magical, and somehow entirely tragic. None of those chapters reserved for the history of Trachimbrod, particularly for the history of Brod (the maybe daughter of Trachim – who may be the first man in the story to die), seem plausible. They are legendary. And they never have to be proven true – indeed, they fit into the reality of myth just as well as they may fit into the reality of truth. Perhaps the history provided is that of Trachimbrod – most likely not. Nonetheless, you do become attached to the town without a name, then given a name, then given another, and then divided into two (and then three) partitions.

And then destroyed.

And then rediscovered. As nothing.

In some of the most heartbreaking language I have ever encountered.

I read the most heartbreaking section in the break room at work. I couldn’t finish it. I put the book down for a few minutes. Picked it up again. Put it down. Left it there and left it there. Picked it up – I needed to know. Couldn’t read any further. Needed to finish it – my break was getting close to being done. Didn’t finish it, and had to come back to it again after work. It bothered me.

What works for Everything is Illuminated is that it is nothing that you expect it to be. You only briefly encounter the Nazis and the threat they pose to the town of Trachimbrod. It isn’t a story of survival, or a story of the gas chambers. In fact – and this is what caught me most off-guard – it has pretty much nothing to do with the Nazis at all. Far more paper is dedicated to the history of the town. Far more paper is dedicated to the vacation to find the town again. Far more paper is dedicated to the letters sent across an ocean as a man in Eastern Europe battles for independence. Indeed, much of this paper is moving – the text that blackens it blooming like a flower of insight and humour and tragedy and joy.

I cannot highly enough recommend this novel. It is not without flaws – but while you are reading it, if you can accept the language and the structure, if you can hear the philosophy singing through the pages, then you will almost surely overlook them. Is it the best book I have ever read? No – not quite. But it is certainly the best I have read all year. Upon putting it down, I immediately wanted to pick it up again and figure out where the fairy tale becomes real and vice versa. Ever since, I have spent time reading some of my favourite passages over and over again.

Read. This. Book.

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