Everything Is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

everything is illuminated - jonathan safran foer
One of my reading session at a coffee place in the morning before work

I’m going to say it upfront. I have mixed feelings about Everything is Illuminated. The book has been on my to-read list for ages, especially ever since Claire told me that I would like his book if I liked her wife’s book (which I did, I absolutely loved The History of Love). And yes I could possibly recognise some similarities in this book, but it didn’t hit me effortlessly like Krauss’s did, and I’m not sure whether it’s just me, that I’m already at a different place now reading-wise (I read The History of Love 5 years ago).

First of all, the book is started by the voice of a Ukranian boy with a broken English, which means it’s kinda started on the wrong foot for me. As someone whose first language isn’t English, I often find any broken English written by English speaking writers sounding…, well, false. It just doesn’t ring true to me. It’s fabricated. It’s broken English according to people whose first language is English, and it’s often on borderline to being annoying or insulting.

The plot summary of the book: an American writer names Jonathan Safran Foer is coming to Ukraine to search for Augustine, who is a daughter in the family that saved Jonathan’s grandfather in Nazi’s time. The grandfather comes from this village called Trachimbrod. Jonathan hires a guide (translator Alex, and driver – Alex’s grandfather).

Hence there are three types of chapters that go alternately:
– Alex, the Ukranian boy, in letters that he sends to Jonathan  –> broken English
– Alex (the same one), in stories he writes about his experience in Ukraine with Jonathan in their quest to search for Augustine –> broken English
– Jonathan, in stories he writes about what he thinks happens in the past to his ancestors and the village Trachimbrod

Already it sounds more complex than you expected, right? That’s what I think. The voice of Alex means that at least half of the book is written in this sort of broken English. Most mistakes that I see when writers do this is that the characters often use words that are way beyond their levels, YET retain their mistakes for ridiculously simple words. Example of why it doesn’t ring true to me: Alex uses “manufacture Z” for “sleep”, and retains this use until the end of the book even though his English in other areas improve. That is crazy. “Sleep” and many other basic words are the very first thing we learn when we learn English, or any new language. There’s NO way you would use word like “manufacture Z” for “sleep” as it is a way more complicated word. I can understand why the author maintains the usage, because “the voice” needed to be consistent – it’s writing rule. But it’s unrealistic. Anyway, I have to digress here, because I can go on and on about this.

You’ve probably noticed that one of the main characters is also named Jonathan Safran Foer, an American writer. As I recall, in one of Ian McEwan’s interviews that I watched recently, he mentioned that readers should be suspicious when the author appears in their supposedly fictional book. YES. Because, WHY? What is the purpose of using character with the same name and the same background? I can sort of understand the play of fiction vs reality thing, but I find it a bit annoying, like the author is having a laugh at you.

So on and on, in reading this book, I was always on the edge of being annoyed and being entertained. The structure of the book also felt like it’s borderline on being either gimmicky or smart, like the author was trying really hard to tell a story in A NEW WAY to get published (this is his debut novel). These days that seems to be one of the requirements to get your book published for the first time. Can you tell a story in a NEW WAY? After all this is a story of Holocaust at its heart, which has been told many times over. Jonathan needed to bring a new thing on the table.

Real life Jonathan insisted that the book is all fiction, but someone seems to think otherwise. Check the link for a great article / story by a woman who survived the Jew genocide at Trochenbrod, a real village in Polish-Ukranian border (the village is called Trachimbrod in the book). Lastly, Alex the character in the book is nicknamed Sasha, while real life Jonathan’s son is also named Sasha. Confused much?

It’s hard to make up my mind, but the book is compelling enough for me to read until the end. And if anything, the way the story is told IS different than anything I’ve read before. So I guess that’s a good thing. I quite enjoyed Jonathan’s chapters (those written in proper English). Foer seems to have a good command of language. Just can’t help feeling that I was being slightly tricked the whole way. I could see the author’s hands. I could see the strings with which he moved his puppets.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

 

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