Saturday, 18 April 2009

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

There is a line in this book that, for me, encompasses it’s feeling perfectly: “the only way to tell a tragedy is through humour.” When I first came across that line I questioned it; I wasn’t sure I agreed. But having finished Everything Is Illuminated I think Safran Foer has hit on something there. It is the story of an American man (called, coincidentally, Jonathan Safran Foer) who is searching for his past by following the only real lead he has – a faded photograph of his grandfather with the mysterious ‘Augustine’, and the name of a small town in the Ukrainian countryside: Trachimbrod. With the help of his hired translator, Alex (a nineteen year old whose English comes out of a thesaurus), and Alex’s gruff grandfather (the driver – who claims to be blind) and his ‘seeing-eye dog’, Sammy Davis Junior Junior – they set out on a doomed journey across the Ukrainian landscape in search of Trachimbrod and its history.

The narrative is interspersed with Safran Foer’s “novel” – his fictional interpretation of the history of Trachimbrod, which I think everyone (or at least all the reviews I’ve read) will happily compare to Marquez for its surrealism and take on a town history. As the story unfolds, the tragedy comes to light, and you are left confused by your own emotions. In parts, I was laughing hysterically, only to turn the page and want to choke and weep. I don’t know about other readers, but this juxtaposition induced guilt in me – which in turn induced a deeper sadness and horror at the tragedy that the story centers around. So perhaps the only way to tell a tragedy really is through humour. I’d buy it.

This book is definitely a beauty. Safran Foer writes fluidly, emotively and with a sharp eye – he evokes emotion using surprising techniques, so that you are surprise by your own reaction to his words. I loved his surrealism, and his horrid realism. I cried and hooted. I puzzled and sighed. There were more than a few occasions on which I had to stop reading, sit back and mull over what I had just read. A book that gives insight, that moves and touches, that finds a part of you you weren’t aware of – that is a great book. This one ticks all the boxes. Read it.

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