Everything Is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer

With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man - also named Jonathan Safran Foer - sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.






This is one of those novels that I think I may have to read a number of times to really get everything. I know I loved it but I also know I wasn't always entirely clear on what exactly was going on. 


One thing that might throw readers is the fact that author Jonathan Safran Foer names one of the main characters Jonathan Safran Foer, but this is a novel, not an autobio. Who doesn't like a little semi-meta flavoring, right? ;-) Foer doesn't even say if this is inspired by anything in his own family's story. The character just happens to be named JFS. Even though the character Jonathan is one of the key characters, we only learn his story secondhand. The story is actually narrated by Ukrainian translator Alex. 


Alex speaks English in a very unique way -- it's a nod to when one learns a foreign language and ends up speaking it in an overly perfect, almost robotic way. Foer uses this idea but makes it even more comical, having Alex use odd phrasing such as "KGB on him" (spy) or "tardy at night / tardy at day" (late).  He also signs all his letters to Jonathan "Guilelessly, Alex", which I actually thought was a pretty cool way to close a letter :-) This way of speaking also ends up leading to some pretty poignant moments between Alex and Jonathan -- a couple of my favorites being "We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? The both of us?" and "I do not think there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem."


I know that I should have recognized the sound that was a little less than crying. It was Little Igor {Alex's little brother}...This made me a suffering person. I knew why he was a little less than crying. I knew very well, and I wanted to go to him and tell him that I had a little less than cried too, just like him, and that no matter how much it seemed like he would never grow up to be a premium person like me, with many girls and so many famous places to go, he would. He would be exactly like me. And look at me, Little Igor, the bruises go away, and so does how you hate, and so does the feeling that everything you receive in life is something you have earned.

~Alex walking in on his little brother after his brother was beaten by their father 

(damn you, Foer, for gut punching me for this one! lol)


So how are the stories of Alex and Jonathan connected? Well, after the death of his grandmother, Jonathan decides he wants to learn the story behind a photograph of his grandfather and a mystery woman, a woman Jonathan was told saved his grandfather from the Nazis during WW2. Jonathan decides to travel to the Ukraine to see if he can track down this woman or her family and find out what really happened. Jonathan hires Alex as his translator, Alex brings his own anti-Semitic grandfather along to serve as the driver on the roadtrip through these communities looking for this woman. 


I should also explain that the chapters alternate quite a bit (lending to some of the confusion while reading). The chapters written in more modern times are made from Alex's letters to Jonathan, after Jonathan returns to the States. The reader begins to see that Alex is in the process of trying to write a book around his travels with his grandfather and Jonathan, writing to Jonathan for clarification on some topics, permission to discuss others. Additionally, there are other chapters that go back in time, not only back to WW2 but also back to the late 18th century, introducing the reader to various memorable characters in Jonathan's family tree who all play a part in the story of Jonathan's grandfather. The chapters looking at the community of Trachimbrod in the 18th century were actually some of my favorite bits of the story -- I really liked the complexity of the relationship between Brod & the Kolker -- though Alex was also a pretty enjoyable character to get to know. 


He awoke each morning with the desire to do right, to be a good and meaningful person, to be, as simple as it sounded  and as impossible as it actually was, happy...By early afternoon he was overcome by the feeling that nothing was right, or nothing was right for him, and by the desire to be alone. By evening he was fulfilled: alone in the magnitude of his grief, alone in his aimless guilt, alone even in his loneliness. I am not sad, he would repeat to himself over and over, I am not sad. As if he might one day convince himself. Or fool himself. Or convince others -- the only thing worse than being sad is for others to know that you are sad. I am not sad. I am not sad. Because his life had unlimited potential for happiness, insofar as it was an empty white room. He was.. overcome with the desire to be somewhere else, someone else, someone else somewhere else. I am not sad.


It did take me a few chapters to really get into the story, but I think that's largely because there are so many layers here and it took time to find my footing within the story and figure out what was going on! Like I was saying, I think there was a good bit I didn't quite get on the first read so I definitely want to come back to this one in the future. While there are sad and painful moments written in (how can there not be when a character is investigating family history tied to Nazi attacks), there is also quite a bit of clever, blink-and-you-might-miss-it humor! 


If you like WW2 era novels or Jewish history novels in general, this one's not to be missed! 



POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: There are some scenes / descriptions of an intense sexual nature -- some are only mildly graphic while others are quite violent. There are also multiple suicides mentioned within the plot. 






Thoughts on movie adaptation:


Pretty cool to find out the movie adaptation was actually directed by actor Liev Schreiber! I loved his intrepretation. Not only is the film beautifully shot, but it has a quirkiness to it -- almost like a blend of the looks of films by Wes Anderson and the Coen Bros. 


Elijah gives an impressive performance as Jonathan, giving the character more life than he seemed to have in the novel. I think the real star though was Eugene Hutz (Ukranian himself) who, in my opinion, NAILED the characterization of Alex, which was no small task, what with Alex's somewhat awkward way of speaking! 


I would definitely recommend reading the book first because a lot of the novel was cut from the film (obvs) but the novel was so layered, I imagine some of it may have just been too difficult to translate well to screen. However, the background you get from the novel will help explain the film a lot better. All the scenes from the 18th century are almost entirely cut from the film's script, so if you were hoping to see how the relationship between Brod & the Kolker translated to screen, sorry to say it doesn't happen. 


Also fun, author Jonathan Safran Foer (the real one, lol) has an on-screen credit himself, as "Leaf Blower".


Also, a note on the trigger warning I put above -- one of the suicides written in the story IS brought to screen, and somewhat graphically so ... just a heads up on that. 


But yes, a beautifully done adaptation!