Book Reviews

Everything is illuminated * Jonathan Safran Foer

200px-EverythingIsIlluminatedThis must be one of the few books where I was thinking “WTF am I reading?” for most of the time. I did not know there was a movie starring Elijah Wood and I had no idea how addictive the book proved to be.
It came to me from the Oprah book list and I must say that when I read the synopsis that I was expecting something completely different.

A young man who shares the author’s name sets off for the Ukraine hoping to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. And yet, this isn’t a Holocaust story like any other you’ve ever read. Narrated mostly by Jonathan’s Ukrainian translator, in hilarious broken English, the book is a startling mash-up of heartbreaking history, fable, humor and dazzling narrative tricks. The result? An indelible story that’s both irreverent and haunting.
— Dawn Raffel

everything_is_illuminated_photo_0-1158374699An American goes to Ukraine to find “Augustine” and hires a local tour which will help him navigate to a lost village while translating for him and emerging themselves in knowing each other and their past better. There are two parts of the book which, at first, seem to follow no timeline and are completely bound to each other. First, you have Alex’s letters to Jonathan talking to him after his Ukraine visit about their time together as he saw it and then you have Jonathan’s reply coming back as a story from the 1700’s tracing the family line and the story of a village from its first naming to the Nazi invasion. The story is silly at parts and deeply haunting at others… I had to stop on several occasions and take a breather as I thought my mind would explode and my heart would break.

I loved the story that Jonathan wrote about his great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Brod, who was a babe rescued from a carriage who toppled into the nearby river and then given as an adoptive daughter to Yankel, a 70 year old man.

Not only was she the smartest citizen in Trachimbrod, she was also the most lonely and sad. She was a genius of sadness, immersing herself in it, separating its numerous strands, appreciating its subtle nuances. She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum…
Are you sad, Yankel? She asked one morning over breakfast.
Of course, he said, feeding melon slices into her mouth with a shaking spoon.
Because you were eating then, instead of talking, and I become sad when I don’t hear your voice.
When you watch people dance, does that make you sad?
Of course.
It also makes me sad. Why do you think it does that?
He kissed her on the forehead, put his hand under her chin. You really must eat, he said, it’s getting late.

Sasha Gioppo - Brod from the theatre play
Sasha Gioppo – Brod from the theatre play

Brod was quirky and very beautiful, desired by the men and hated by the women. By the age of 10, she was receiving marriage proposals from all, but she was not interested, she was more interested in defining sadness.

Brod discovered 613 sadnesses, each perfectly unique, each a singular emotion, no more similar to any other sadness than to anger, ecstasy, guilt, or frustration. Mirror Sadness. Sadness of Domesticated Birds. Sadness of Being Sad in front of One’s Parent. Humor Sadness. Sadness of Love Without Release.
She was like a drowning person, flailing, reaching for anything that might save her. Her life was an urgent, desperate struggle to justify her life.

She was so sad that she could not find a place for herself in the world, nothing to care for, nothing to love.

Nothing felt like anything more than it actually was. Everything was just a thing, mired completely in its thingness.
If we were to open a random page in her journal we would find some rendering of the following sentiment: I am not in love.

She discovers and names no more than 613 sadnesses out of which only 55 survive the trials of time written in the annuals of her town.

The following encyclopaedia of sadness was found on the body of Brod D. The original 613 sadnesses, written in her diary, corresponded to the 613 commandments of our (not their) Torah. Shown below is what was salvageable after Brod was recovered. (Her diary’s wet pages printed the sadnesses onto her body. Only a small fraction [55] were legible. The other 558 sadness are lost forever, and it is hoped that, without knowing what they are, no one will have to experience them.) The diary from which they came was never found.

tumblr_nuguquAcSO1rn2320o1_500SADNESSES OF THE BODY: Mirror sadness; Sadness of [looking] like or unlike one’s parents; Sadness of not knowing if your body is normal; Sadness of knowing your [body is] not normal; Sadness of knowing your body is normal; Beauty sadness; Sadness of m[ake]up; Sadness of physical pain; Pins-and-[needles sadness]; Sadness of clothes [sic]; Sadness of the quavering eyelid; Sadness of a missing rib; Noticeable sad[ness]; Sadness of going unnoticed; The sadness of having genitals that are not like those of your lover; The sadness of having genitals that are like those of your lover; Sadness of hands…..
SADNESSES OF THE COVENANT: Sadness of God’s love; Sadness of God’s back [sic]; Favourite-child sadness; Sadness of b[ein]g sad in front of one’s God; Sadness of the opposite of belief [sic]; Sadness of God alone in heaven; Sadness of a God who would need people to pray to him….
SADNESSES OF THE INTELLECT: Sadness of being misunderstood [sic]; Humor sadness; Sadness of love wit[hou]t release; Sadne [ss of be] ing smart; Sadness of not knowing enough words to [express what you mean]; Sadness of having options; Sadness of wanting sadness; Sadness of confusion; Sadness of domes[ti]cated birds; Sadness of fini[shi]ng a book; Sadness of remembering; Sadness of forgetting; Anxiety Sadness…
INTERPERSONAL SADNESSES: Sadness of being sad in front of one’s parent; Sa[dn]ness of false love; Sadness of love [sic]; Friendship sadness; Sadness of a bad convers[at]ion; Sadness of the could-have-been; Secret sadness….
SADNESSES OF SEX AND ART: Sadness of arousal being an unordinary physical state; Sadness of feeling the need to create beautiful things;…Kissing Sadness; Sadness of moving too quickly; Sadness of not mo[vi]ng; Nude model sadness; Sadness of portraiture…..

Despite all of Brod’s sadnesses, she does manage to fall in love (Even though she tells him she does not love him after a few years), and has three children whom she names Yankel out of which two die and the last Yankel would get married and continue the line. I loved the story of Jonathan’s grandmother and grandfather and how his grandfather (Safran) was loved because of his dead arm.

“Without proper calcium, his infant body had to allocate its resources judiciously, and his right arm drew the short straw”

This bizarre malady of Safran was the groundwork of intertwined literature genius. In addition, he was “like a wagon with no breaks, he never stopped short,” which means that he never could reach orgasm. This was all a direct consequence of Safran having teeth at birth, a common occurrence that happens in about one in every 2,000 to 3,000 babies (Fotek). However, that notion the malnutrition would result in the consequences observed within Safran does not seem to be very likely, although it is possible. Within the story Everything is Illuminated the character Safran exhibits a couple irrelevant and inexplicable details with his dead arm and inability to orgasm. However, as random as it may appear, it is relevant to the narrative framework as a whole and it is included because of the love, death, lack of guilt, and the questions that arise throughout the novel.

Love and romance with Safran was a troublesome situation from a very young age. All starting with Rose W who, “thought it was pity that she felt for the crippled boy who had come on behalf of the Sloucher congregation to help clean the house”. Rose W was his first lover at the young age of ten and this lovemaking would continue for four years. It is an interesting coincidence that he was visiting her under the name of charity. She herself happened to be an elderly woman, also presumed to be infertile and could be looked upon as being limited, like Safran, because of her age. These two factors made her the perfect candidate to get the wheels of the love story of Safran turning. The book mentions that her last thought was about his arm, a common lure to hook in many of the women with whom Safran had sexual encounters. In addition, this hook, in combination with his inability to orgasm, led to sexual experiences with 132 more women.

This was all, of course, before he had met anyone he loved, because,

“can one miss something one has never known? Besides, he never loved any of his lovers. He never confused anything he felt for love”

So is Safran able to love?
It is debatable if he ever truly loved a person, however it is suggested that the closes he ever came to loving a woman was between the Gypsy girl and Zosha. The greatest bit of evidence for whom he may have loved is,

“Seven months later, June 18, 1941, as the first display of German bombing lit the Trachimbrod skies electric, as my grandfather had his first orgasm (his first and only pleasure, of which she was not the cause) she slit her wrist”

The bombing, in correlation to the orgasm, is an important detail because it is as if the orgasm is blowing up the one he did love.

It is unclear if he is in love with the Gypsy girl or Zosha, who gave him his first orgasm. It is clear that his dead arm is what put him into this situation and that him being able to orgasm here is significant to the story because it shows an evolution of him having sexual encounters solely for entertainment to actually doing it out of love. A conversation with the Dial is what truly illuminates the individual that Safran does love:

The Gypsy girl. What ever became of her? She was nice.
The Gypsy girl? The one you loved.
It’s not her that I love. It is my girl. My girl.
You love the baby in Zosha’s belly.

This baby is the last remaining bit of the female that Safran did love. The baby may be within Zosha’s stomach; however, it is not Zosha that he loves, but the baby within. It was the Gypsy girl all along that he did love, and it was the Gypsy girl who was on his mind when the baby was conceived.

Love with Safran is a complex situation and it is hard to tell many times throughout the story who he does love, yet there is strong evidence that he loved the gypsy girl and thus the baby he conceived when he was thinking of her. However, it was the connection between his inability to orgasm and his dead arm that strung his story together. This is to say that had if he had a normal childhood, he would never have met Zosha or the Gypsy girl because he would have been content with the first few women that he met. Thus, it must be assumed that his life events would not have taken shape had it not been for is maladies.
The next great theme of Safran’s life is his overwhelming luck with escaping death because of his dead arm:

It was because his arm died that he never worked in the menacing flourmill, but in the tannery just outside the shtetl, and that he was exempted from the draft that sent his schoolmates off to be killed in hopeless battles against the Nazis. His arm would save him again when it kept him from swimming back to Trachimbrod to save his only love (who died in the river with the rest of
them), and again when it kept him from drowning himself. His arm
saved him again when it caused Augustine to fall in love with him and save him, and it saved him once again, years later, when it prevented him from boarding the New Ancestry to Ellis Island, which would be turned back on orders of U.S. immigration officials, and whose passengers would all eventually perish in the Treblinka death camp. (Pg. 166)

The numerous times that his dead arm saved him is astounding. Some of the notable events that stand out is the Flour Mill, where it is not guaranteed Safran would have died, however, it is a good bet based on other occurrences there. Escaping the draft was no doubt fortunate because it would have surely been a death sentence. The drowning part ties in with the last theme of love because it talks about how his dead arm is what kept him from saving the thing he loved; one has to wonder if it were not for the dead arm could he have saved the baby? The most important one of all is Augustine saving him because that is the person trying to be found all throughout the book. Then lastly, his arm prevented him from boarding a ship that would have led to his death. It is clear that his malady saved him more times than once from death. Thus, it is clear why the author chose Safran to have such a hideous deformity because it needed to hinder him. This hindrance also needed to attract, such as in the case of having Augustine fall in love with him. Therefore, this alienates Safran from the other people of Trachimbrod and allows him to survive where he would not have otherwise.

“Wasn’t everything that had happened, from his first kiss to this, his first marital infidelity the inevitable result of circumstances over which he had no control?”

Safran’s life style was not in his control, thus he is not to blame for his actions. Looking back at some of these events, it can be seen that his dead arm and lack of orgasm led to this event because it is to say that if he lacked these, he would not have been in a sexual encounter with Maya. This quote is also an acknowledgment by Safran that everything from the start of his life was out of his control, in fact it is almost as if the situations he was given were put in place just with the sole purpose to make the perfect story. This is to say that Safran’s string of events is not realistic in the least bit; however, it makes for a great story.

Throughout the story, Alex offers up some great commentary. He says,

“Why do women love your grandfather because of his dead arm? Do they love it because it enables them to feel strong over him? Do they love it because they are commiserating it, and we love the things that we commiserate? Do they love it because it is a momentous symbol of death? I ask because I do not know”

As with many of his letters, it is clear that he is serving as the mediator of the two stories. It is clear through Alex’s questions, that even he is a little confused about why exactly women loved Safran’s dead arm.
This is a great quote because for the first time, the audience is offered some great suggestions on why the author chose to use a dead arm over some other malady. Alex’s confusion mirrors that of the audience and makes them question once more, what the symbol of the dead arm could be and what it means.

The last thing I loved about the story was Alex himself. He starts off as describing himself as a club-going, fun-loving, girl-seducing superstar, but as the story progresses, you can clearly tell he wants more from his life, he loves his brother and mother and his grandpa and he even starts writing and then going to the beach to save up money. His relationship with his father deteriorates throughout the book and in the climaxing scene, he gives all the money he saved up to his dad so that he can leave his family and not be a drunk that will destroy their lives.

every14I had a very strange vibe from Alex. I think he was gay as he clearly loves Jonathan and in one of his fights with his father, his dad accuses him of going out clubbing and then bringing back home one of his “comrades”. In a letter to Jonathan he then mentions that it would be best if he would be free to love who he chooses but it’s not clear at all whether he meant a boy or a girl.

JSF: Not to be coy, but it doesn’t really matter what I say. Obviously he saw some, and so in his reading of the book they’re there. I don’t think the whole inquiry into what the author is thinking about gets too far in any kind of interesting direction. That having been said, I will tell him what I was thinking! Yes, that did occur to me. I wasn’t sure honestly what to make of him. As I was writing it and as I was reading it I was thinking, “Ah yes, this is something that’s there.” That doesn’t mean that I wanted him to be gay or even that I think he is. Often when you write… you know a writer encounters things in his writing the same way that a reader does. You notice things, things come up, like patterns you didn’t mean to put there. I often find myself surprised. And then you can choose to either make sense of it, and spell it out more clearly, correct it, or leave it as it is. Not always, but very, very often I think the best thing is to just leave it as it is.
Interview with Jonathan Foer

I agree with him and it really does not matter.


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