Boy of Wonders

Jonathan Safran Foer’s remarkable first novel began life as an undergraduate exercise, but it’ll probably take a doctoral dissertation to figure it all out. Everything Is Illuminated pretends to be about a young man’s search for the Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis but is really about pretty much everything else: love, history, memory, narrative, and death – and that’s just for starters. Not at all bad considering that the author was still attending Princeton barely three years ago.

You’d need 300 pages, rather than just one, to dissect this novel, because it goes after its grandiose targets with some of the most complex technical tricks you’re likely to encounter in recent fiction. Like so many young writers, Foer is steeped in the wink-wink orthodoxies of postmodernism; but unlike so many of them he has put his narrative prestidigitation in the service of some very serious themes.

Everything Is Illuminated has two wildly different narrators, and two elaborately intertwined stories. One, by a certain “Jonathan Safran Foer,” is a fictional retelling of the history of his grandfather’s town, the Galician shtetl of Trachimbrod. That novel, which proceeds in a series of magical-realist vignettes, begins in 1791, the year the shtetl got its strange name. (Trachim accidentally drove his wagon into the local river, the Brod, and drowned; his infant daughter, who was subsequently named Brod, too, miraculously floated to the surface and survived.) It ends in 1942, when the Germans raze the village after most of its 1,204 Jews are drowned in the river. In a repetition of the town’s founding event, Jonathan’s grandfather rises to the surface and is saved.

Interspersed with the chapters on Trachimbrod are episodes from Jonathan’s search for the mysterious Augustine, his grandfather’s alleged savior. These are narrated by Alex Perchov, a cocky young Ukrainian who, along with his strangely moody grandfather, serves as Jonathan’s guide, and who writes in a sublimely funny pidgin English all too obviously picked up from a well-worn thesaurus. (“I was near-at-hand to writing that we both relish to remain conscious tardy,” he writes of staying up late to watch TV.) As the book proceeds, the two narratives gravitate toward each other, the first moving forward in time, the second moving backward, as Alex’s grandfather starts to reveal his own memories of the war. At the quite devastating climax of the book, you realize how the two tales are related, a connection that forever sunders Alex from Jonathan.

Foer’s interest in doubles, in halves that must become wholes, in intertwining the fictional and the “real,” is more than just a gimmick. It’s a remarkably effective way of dwelling on an issue of considerable urgency in Holocaust literature: the seemingly hopeless split between history and narrative, between what happened and what can be told. One of the many pleasures of this book is the sophistication with which Foer underscores the importance of this and other themes. Trachimbrod itself is split into two parts (the “Jewish Quarter” and “the Human Three-Quarters”); key characters turn out to have two names, and indeed two identities; Jonathan’s and Alex’s families are revealed to be mirror images of each other; and, most memorably, one of Jonathan’s ancestors had his head split in two by a saw blade during a factory accident but survived. He ends his days in a room divided by a curtain through which he has sex with his wife.

If the curtain is a striking reminder of the ways in which people (and peoples) and eras can be forever separated, the sex is a symbol of something that Foer believes in just as fervently: the saving power of love, and particularly of love as expressed in acts of remembering – and writing. (This book is filled with people reading and writing: letters, notes, plays, books.) Yet this young author is sophisticated enough to know that all great loves, and literatures, are informed by a deep consciousness of loss: Not for nothing does his powerful novel end with a sequence of words that, even as it asserts one tormented man’s desire to die, uses one final reduplication, one final echo, to forge an amazing and tremendously moving unity of past and present, fiction and history, life and death. To say any more would be to reveal too much, too clumsily, about a book that illuminates so much with such odd and original beauty.

Everything Is Illuminated
By Jonathan Safran Foer.
Houghton Mifflin; 288 pages; $24.

Boy of Wonders