With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man -- also named Jonathan Safran Foer -- sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.
The simplest thing would be to describe Everything Is Illuminated
, Jonathan Safran Foer's accomplished debut, as a novel about the Holocaust. It is, but that really fails to do justice to the sheer ambition of this book. The main story is a grimly familiar one. A young Jewish American--who just happens to be called Jonathan Safran Foer--travels to the Ukraine in the hope of finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is aided in his search by Alex Perchov, a naïve Ukrainian translator, Alex's grandfather (also called Alex), and a flatulent mongrel dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. On their journey through Eastern Europe's obliterated landscape they unearth facts about the Nazi atrocities and the extent of Ukrainian complicity that have implications for Perchov as well as Safran Foer. This narrative is not, however, recounted from (the character) Jonathan Safran Foer's perspective. It is relayed through a series of letters that Alex sends to Foer. These are written in the kind of broken Russo-English normally reserved for Bond villains or Latka from Taxi
. Interspersed between these letters are fragments of a novel by Safran Foer--a wonderfully imagined, almost magical realist, account of life in the shtetl before the Nazis destroyed it. These are in turn commented on by Alex, creating an additional metafictional angle to the tale.
If all this sounds a little daunting, don't be put off; Safran Foer is an extremely funny as well as intelligent writer who combines some of the best Jewish folk yarns since Isaac Bashevis Singer with a quite heartbreaking meditation on love, friendship, and loss. --Travis Elborough, Amazon.co.uk