Light on a very dark subject

Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything is illuminated has been sat on my To-Be-Read shelf for a very long time. I did try to get into it a few years ago, but I found the language of the opening really off-putting, and just couldn't get into it. In the end I decided that critical comments suggesting that it was over-rated were probably correct, and gave up....which actually was a mistake as on re-reading I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's a wonderfully funny novel that also manages to be quite heart-breaking. Partly autobiographical, the novel tells the story of an author's journey back to the Ukraine to find the woman who had saved his grandfather from the Holocaust; the Holocaust that sucked his grandfather's first wife and child, and the extended family, into oblivion. Part magic realism, part only too real, the novel moves between post-Soviet Ukraine as the author, his engaging translator, Alex (who wants to move to America), Alex's grandfather, and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the grandfather's seeing-eye dog go on a road trip to find the lost town of Trachimbrod, a little Jewish town in the heart of the Ukraine, which was destroyed by the Nazis.

The little town comes to life through magic realism as Foer delves into its history - its families, its gossip, its legends and traditions, the loves and losses that affected the town through the ages, the "Upright" Rabbi and the Slouching congregation. It's gloriously funny and heart-warming but this suddenly stops when the SS arrive in Trachimbrod, and the love and laughter and traditions that were passed down from generation to generation are no more.

The novel wasn't entirely well received in Eastern Europe, it was argued that there was too much emphasis on the collaboration of some Ukrainians with the Nazis in the destruction of the Ukrainian-Jewish population, and not enough mention of Ukrainians who lost their own lives protecting their Jewish friends. I think this is to misunderstand what the novel is about. It's not solely about the destruction of the Jewish community, though that is of course centrally important; it's also about the impact of evil on any life, and how people respond to that for good or ill.

Alex, the interpreter, is horrified to discover a dark history of his country that he was unaware existed. He's also horrified by some anti-Semitic attitudes that had previously gone unnoticed, but the author's comment to him that "The Ukrainians back then were terrible to the Jews. They were almost as bad as the Nazis" is balanced by what the reader, and Alex, and even the author himself, discover as the novel plays out. Some Ukrainians undoubtedly were terrible, but some weren't terrible people, but they were caught up in a horrible time where sometimes people who were good ended up doing terrible things because they had no choice. This is played out dramatically when Alex's grandfather is forced to revisit his past and his great act of betrayal. Ultimately though Foer makes it clear that Grandfather is a victim of his past, a past that would eternally haunt him, just as much as Foer's own Grandfather was haunted by his survival, when all around him had died in unspeakable circumstances. And some people, such as the woman who saved Foer's Grandfather from the fate that befell most of the rest of the villages were undoubtedly heroes, whose goodness was a small beacon of light, an illumination, in an ocean of darkness.

Everything is illuminated is a truly haunting read. A novel of love and courage and humour and humanity. It also deals with some of the darkest aspects of what it is to be human - betrayal and cruelty and downright evil. But despite this, it isn't ultimately a sad novel, there is a wonderful warmth and sheer joy in living about it. It radiates life and light and joy, truly everything is illuminated.


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