Everything Is Illuminated
Jonathan Safran Foer
Read from April 05 to 19, 2012
Why I picked it up: Safran Foer was trending everywhere on my bookish feeds; Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and various blogs. I then bought Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close while my sister bought Everything Is Illuminated. My sister has already read and finished both, and advised that I start with the latter book.
Why I finished it: It took me months to get past the first few chapters, and if it were any other book I might have surrendered completely. This time, for some reason, the book challenged me more than it harassed and irritated me. I had heard great things about it, and I was determined not to be left out of a well-respected book.
How I felt after finishing it: Overwhelmed, bewildered, restless, perhaps a little confused and enlightened. No wiser, but definitely a bit more pensive and curious.
The book is about an American Jew who arrives in Ukraine looking for Augustine, a woman whose family he believes saved his grandfather from the Nazis. To assist him in his search, he acquires an unprofessional young translator and his grandfather for a driver.
The book is also about chance and choice, and the damning cross and difference between the two, about time and memory and circumstance, about love and death and what is necessary.
The trio (with the deranged dog, whom I hate) make for comical events, but I promise you this book does not belong on the comedy shelf. It will seize your heart by the lungs, if your heart had lungs, astound you with its alternate between murdered English and literary paragraphs that move through time and past reality.
The book is about love, what does it mean to love?
It is about who we choose to love, like Brod and the Kolker, whose hopeless violence she consumed and attended to, because she was in love and therefore had a reason to live. “She was with me. She did all of those things and many more, things I would never tell anyone, and she never even loved me. Now that’s love.”
It is about Yankel, who adored his untrue daughter with all the force of love he had wanted but was unable to give to anyone else. He was true to her for all things except those that would matter to her the most, because those were the things that would hurt her, and he lived his life that she may not know pain.
It is about chance and choice, and the damning cross and difference between the two.
I thought I loved Jonathan, the American writer who knew what he was looking for and all that he stood for, and I was irritated with Sasha, the Ukrainian who was full of shallow untruths. But the way that each of them dealt with searching and discovery reminded me exactly how, even in a book, we can change our minds about somebody.
This book exudes philosophy, a subject I have yet to study, understand, or attempt to do either. But I know, because it is full of questions that are answered with questions, and the maps of human lives that show you pinpoints but does not tell you how to get from one to the other.
Was there any relation between the history of Jonathan and Sasha? Perhaps not, I do not know. But why did their paths cross? And why did Jonathan, the one with the questions, leave empty-handed, while Sasha, the one who never asked, got his answers? Because that is how we find things. We find love, and truth, and the hope of choice in other people. Someone else has to illuminate it for us.
Sasha’s letters and Jonathan’s story had some important human truths that poked my insides, because I could not believe that the emptiness of their words were speaking to me. I thought that sentences had to overflow with meaning for them to make sense, but they didn’t.
I learned about sadness ─ from Brod, so loved and unloved, the author of 613 sadnesses. It sounded ridiculous, but I knew it was possible to feel that much sadness, and that was why I loved her. She was a good person in a bad world, a bad time; like Grandfather, like Sasha, like Little Igor. It was possible, and real, and scary.
Sasha, in his letters, brought up the topic of writing, that “…if we are to be such nomads with the truth, why do we not make the story more premium than life?” What we write in our words may be different from what life has truly written, but we have the power to change it and pretend that things happened some other way. That the people who most deserved to be happy were happy, and the people who passed through life broken and scarred received honor and justice. “With writing, we have second chances.” And it’s about choosing to take that second chance to make things better, clearer, brighter.
“Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does.”