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Mahir Meets Mitzvah

Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated

While Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated flashes like a postmodern fun-house of mirrors, it also conveys a rare, not-very-postmodern poignancy. His hilarious passages of clumsy ESL and lush magical realist prose are wickedly funny, yet earnest, bawdy, yet pensive, plausible, yet absurd. There was some commotion when the young writer sold this, his first novel, to Houghton Mifflin for a whopping $500,000. But Everything is Illuminated is worth every penny.

The book is an exchange of writings between one Jonathan Safran Foer, a young Jewish American who has just returned from a trip to the Ukraine, and his Gentile Ukrainian tourguide-translator Alexander Perchov. Alex tells us about the particulars of the expedition, their misadventures in trying to help Jonathan find the woman who he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Jonathan tells us a dreamy history of his grandfather's hometown of Trachimbrod, richly imagined from what few facts there are.

The book reels you in at once, when Alex introduces himself with the same comic sincerity as Ishmael in Moby-Dick: "My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name."

Although the first chapter hysterical, I wondered whether Foer could continue this feat of linguistic acrobatics (and whether I could take it) for 276 pages. But Foer hits the wrong words just right whenever Alex speaks. Alex's delicious word choices -- night owls are "people who remain conscious very tardy," their dog Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. is "the officious seeing-eye bitch" of Heritage Touring -- seem the likely mistakes of an ESL learner, not contrivances by an author looking hard for funny juxtapositions.

Take the following passage, for example, in which Alex's attempt to convince us that he is worldly-wise only makes us chuckle at his na´vetÚ:

"I dig American movies. I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson. I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa. Lamborghini Countaches are excellent, and so are cappuccinos. Many girls want to be carnal with me in many arrangements, notwithstanding the Inebriated Kangaroo, the Gorky Tickle, and the Unyielding Zookeeper. If you want to know why so many girls want to be with me, it is because I am a very premium person to be with. I am homely, and also severely funny, and these are winning things."

Foer's deft touch makes readers rethink the truism that something is always lost in translation. Indeed, much is gained.

The passages written by Jonathan turn their own tricks, showing the author to be a first-rate spinner of unconventional tales in conventional English. In these accounts of Trachimbrod, a rabbit-hole Wonderland that has both actual dates (1791-1941) and the magical ever-present of fable, Foer's brilliant imagination is on display as incredible situations are taken to their credible conclusions.

"The Time of the Dyed Hands," an entry that reads like folklore in Trachimbrod's historical record, the Book of Antecedents, is the best of these vignettes. When the hands of the citizens were dyed different colors to discover who was stealing rolls from Herzog's bakery counter, Foer writes:

"The shtetl was painted with the doings of its citizens and since every color was used - except for that of the counter of course - it was impossible to tell what had been touched by human hands and what was as it was because it was as it was. It was rumored that Getzel G had secretly played every fiddler's fiddle -- even though he didn't play the fiddle! - for the strings were the color of his fingers. People whispered that Gesha R must have become an acrobat -- how else could the Jewish/Human fault line have become as yellow as her palms? And when the blush of a schoolgirl's cheeks were mistaken for the crimson of the holy man's fingers, it was the schoolgirl who was called hussy, tramp, slut."

For all that the Trachimbrodians -- the Upright Rabbi, the Disgraced Usurer Yankel D, Brod, Safran and the rest -- are affectionately exaggerated, they are nevertheless deep, willful, independent. It is a world as fully realized as the Ukraine that Jonathan toured with Alex, Grandfather and Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr.

Yet, for all of Foer's literary skill, Everything is Illuminated isn't just about graceful writing. Foer takes on heavy themes such as desire, memory, war and murder. He investigates what our memories can trick us into believing, what we fear, what isn't said, what is papered over, what we wish we knew.

By showing us the fun-house's warped mirrors, Foer prompts us to imagine what originally stood before those mirrors -- in all of its innocence and all of its crime. It is a process of imagination that makes this book sometimes delightful, sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding.

Everything is Illuminated
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Hardcover: 276 pages (April 2002)
Houghton Mifflin Co; ISBN: 0618173870

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