Everything is Illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer

i was a little dubious about this book after a co-worker was reading it and complained that it seemed the only reason this book was getting attention was because the author was born in 1977. it’s the first fact noted in his bio, and perhaps that isn’t the best selling point for a novel. though it is, admittedly, a pretty impressive work for a young writer.

early on, Jonathan Safran Foer appears as a character in one of the three stories that unfold together. it made me curious how much of this might be inspired by real events. he travels to the Ukraine to seek out a woman who may have saved his grandfather from the nazis, with only an old photograph and some old maps to guide him. some quick research afterwards revealed that this much is true, except that he found absolutely nothing, whereas in this book he is assisted by Alex, a young Ukrainian translator, and Alex’s grandfather, who drives the car, and they do manage to find something.

the intertwined stories emerge as an exchange between Alex and Jonathan afterwards as they are piecing together their respective stories. Jonathan works on writing a folkloric tale of the history of his grandfathe’s shtetl, which he sends to Alex, who replies with letters in his charmingly over-thesaurused english. Alex also sends back his telling of their search for the actual place and the mysterious woman of the photograph from his point of view. Jonathan’s replies are absent, but Alex does reference them in acknowledgements to corrections suggested.

all in all, it is a wise view of what history can mean on a personal level, what exactly is lost in the absence of passing down histories, whether purposefully or not. the book manages to be both humorous and sombre, without either quality becoming trite.