Foer's 'Illuminated': Sense of memory

April 14, 2002|By Dorothea Straus | By Dorothea Straus,Special to the Sun

Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin. 276 pages. $24.

Reading is reading, yet with luck, maybe two or three times in a lifetime, a book transcends its genre to become experience. Everything Is Illuminated is an event of this order.

It is, in part, Holocaust literature, but it differs widely from the countless affecting words written by Jewish survivors. Jonathan Safran Foer is 24, two generations younger than any participant in World War II. His book deals with familial love and links in which the author's grandfather is pivotal. It also relates a folk genesis of the shtetl Trachimbrod, in Ukraine, the native place of Foer's antecedents. Addressing his kin, past, present and future, Foer writes on an opening page that could be an epigraph to this work:

"One day you will do things for me that I will hate. That is what it means to be a family."

The story tells of a fruitless search for a Ukrainian woman reputed to have saved the grandfather from the Nazis. The "hero" of the novel is one with the author and bears his name; his alter ego, Alex, lives in Ukraine and is the so-called collaborator-editor-translator. His letters to his American counterpart are written in hilarious, fractured English that can be, also, weirdly apt.

The author, his fictitious "hero," Alex, the deceased grandfather resuscitated through his grandson's recollections, and the old man's companion, a dog named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior set out on their fantasy search. Voices mingle, identities merge, past and present intertwine in a medley that might be classed as avant-garde, but the uniqueness of Foer's imagination makes him independent from any school of writing.

In 18th century Ukraine, a rustic, Trachim, with his loaded wagon and pregnant wife, drown in the muddy waters of Lake Brod. A girl is born in the filth and debris and manages, somehow, to survive. She is called Brod, and becomes the heroine of a story within a story. And the village Trachimbrod is founded. Brod is taken in by a substitute father, and they love one another deeply. "She had to believe what he told her, because she was still a child, still removing the dust of her first death. What could she do? ... and he was accumulating the dust of his second death."

The people of Trachimbrod are cruel, compassionate, funny, tragic, innocent, bawdy, grotesque and faithful to an erring God. This work is not for formal religionists, nor for the convinced atheist, but for its admirers, it will provoke both laughter and tears.

The quest continues, but the woman sought is nowhere, though there are many colorful misleads and disappointments. The travelers' words mingle and their personas merge as centuries dissolve into one another through the magic of this first novelist and the mystery of atavistic memory.

An excerpt from the testimony of Foer:

"Jews Have Six Senses"

"Touch, taste, sight, smell, sound -- memory -- for the Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin or its silver glimmer, or the taste of blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks -- when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather's fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather's damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain -- that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin he asks 'What does it remember like?' "

Foer, in the tradition of all good tellers of tales, concludes his book with a surprise, unexpected revelation that would be unfair to divulge here.

Out of the grave of the great Yiddish storyteller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, do I hear sounds, a chuckle and a sigh?

Dorothea Straus has written seven books, and her work has been published in Yale Review, Raritan, Partisan Review, Fiction, Commentary, Confrontation, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The Baltimore Sun. She lives in New York City.

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