Book Review: Everything is Illuminated

“With writing, we have second chances”
~ Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

Reading some books is like taking a roller coaster ride. When it gets too disturbing, you want to get off but you are so mesmerised that you cannot help staying on, and you go where the author wants to take you. Midnight’s Children is like that, so is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Magic realism has that effect on the reader. The last book that affected me so powerfully was Kafka on the Shore in which Murakami’s genius leaps out of every page.

Everything is illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is such a book. The reader lives through the horrors of the holocaust and a whole lot more through the history and legends surrounding Trachimbrod, a tiny village in Ukraine and the stories of a number of memorable characters who laugh, cry, live and love through the pages. As in many great novels, the story of the tiny shtetl and the handful of people who live in it come alive as a miniature story of mankind.

The narrative structure follows three separate threads alternating between the present in which the narrator goes on a quest to find the woman who had saved his grandfather from the Nazis, the past in which the narrator writes the history of Trachimbrod in lyrical, formal prose and a third thread consisting of letters from Alex, his Ukranaian friend who writes to him in patchwork English about the story of their journey to Trachimbrod. Alex’s peculiar use of English is a nod to his namesake in A Clockwork Orange, but the similarity between the two characters ends there. Alex in this book is pompous, crude as in unexposed to the world, infatuated with American pop culture and dreams of making a new life for himself in America but through his letters he also comes across as unintentionally funny, affectionate and humane. The novel defines itself that it is about love and an exploration of the meaning of love, but it is equally a story about peace, humanity, life, art and the world.

A definition of art from the book:
“Art is that thing having to do only with itself – the product of a successful attempt to make a work of art. Unfortunately, there are no examples of art, nor good reasons to think that it will ever exist. (Everything that has been made has been made with a purpose, everything with an end that exists outside that thing, i.e., I want to sell this, or I want this to make me famous and loved, or I want this to make me whole, or worse, I want this to make others whole.) And yet we continue to write, paint, sculpt and compose. Is this foolish of us?”
~ Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

A book that manages to be gripping, thought-provoking, hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, to think that Safran Foer was not yet twenty five when he wrote it. I look forward to read more from this author.

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