Saturday, August 8, 2009

161. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

November 2008
History: Semi autobiographical, it was published in 2002 after the author went to Europe to explore his family history.
Plot: A young American Jew, who shares a name with the author, journeys to Ukraine in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather's life during the Nazi liquidation of Trachimbrod, his family shtetl. Armed with many copies of an old photograph of Augustine and his grandfather, maps, cigarettes, and a fanny pack filled with Ziploc bags, Jonathan begins his adventure with Ukrainian native and soon-to-be good friend, Alexander "Alex" Perchov, who is his own age and very fond of American pop culture, albeit culture that is already out of date in the U.S. Alex has studied English at his university and is "premium" in his knowledge of the language, therefore he becomes the translator. Alex's "blind" grandfather and his "deranged seeing-eye bitch," Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr., accompany them on their journey. They have adventures, many of them hilarious, and many are tragic. Jonathan learns that his ancestors village was wiped out, erased during the Nazi invasion, and the occupants either killed or imprisoned. He goes home never having met Augustine. He alternates present with past, scenes from the lives of his Ukrainian ancestors between 1791 and 1943: courtships, marriages, an accident and, eventually, salvation. We learn that Alex’s father is physically abusive, and Alex eventually forces him to leave the family, to protect his younger brother. Alex’s grandfather has a secret that I never could understand, except that he may have been responsible for the slaying of the Jews in the village – was he a nazi soldier, or a jew?, related to Augustine in some way, and eventually commits suicide in the end.
Review: I listened to this book, and I really enjoyed the narration. I think it added to the story. It’s a very funny book, sad about the holocaust, but I really enjoyed it. Not since Anthony Burgess's novel ''A Clockwork Orange'' has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio. Alex speaks English like someone who has taught himself by painstakingly translating a really abysmal novel with the help of a badly outdated dictionary. In his idiosyncratic and persuasively consistent lingo, to sleep is to ''manufacture Z's,'' to have sex is ''be carnal,'' good is ''premium,'' nearby is ''proximal,'' difficult is ''rigid,'' and a certain downtown Manhattan neighborhood is, logically, ''Greenwich Shtetl.'' I think the confusing ending, especially the grandfather’s role, doesn’t destroy the book.
Opening Line: “My legal name is Alexander Perchov.”
Closing Line: “I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will”
Quotes: “She loved herself in love, she loved loving love, as love loves loving, and was able, in that way, to reconcile herself with a world that fell so short of what she would have hoped for.”
Rating: Excellent.

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