Everything Is (Finally) Illuminated

At long last I finished reading Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. The fact that it took me a couple of weeks to read is through no fault of its own. As usually happens on vacations, my attention has been a bit scattered between various projects and ways to fill my time. Eventually I settle back into the mode of reading for pleasure, but that hadn’t quite happened yet.

Perhaps this book was not the best to read over an extended period of time. It has a complicated structure with two narrators, as well as letters written from one narrator to the other. One narrator is a fictionalized version of Jonathan Safran Foer, and his chapters can be esoteric, to say the least. In brief, the novel tells the story of Fictional Foer traveling to Ukraine to investigate his grandfather’s past. Interestingly, Foer makes the character with his name less likeable, while saving the warmth and humor for the other narrator. Then again, I suppose artists are a self-loathing breed. The chapters written by Alex, Fictional Foer’s Ukrainian translator and tour guide, are so loud-out-loud funny that I found myself constantly anticipating their return.

After starting this book, I realized that I had once again made the mistake of seeing a film adaptation before reading the book. Luckily I saw the movie over a year ago, so my memory was foggy enough to not color my reading too much. Also I was warned by my friend Ayse that the film leaves out large chunks of the book. I don’t mind filmmakers taking liberties with a book’s plot if it’s in the service of making a better movie. What works in a novel won’t necessarily work on the screen. In this case, they basically take the part of the novel that you would want to see on-screen:¬† the search for Fictional Foer’s grandfather’s village, as narrated by the Ukrainian translator. You get the hilariously botched English, the culture clash, and the mystery. Eugene Hutz as the translator is absolutely worth the price of admission.

Everything Is Illuminated is part of a genre of literature and film that always interests me, which is the post-World War II generations grappling with its legacy. Another great example is The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Maybe it comes from years of taking German since most of their post-war literature seems to be preoccupied with this topic. (No big surprise there.) Still, I think engaging with the past is an important part of living in the world. If this interests you as well, these are two books to check out.

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