Details: (c) Jonathan Safran Foer 2002; Pub Penguin Books 2003; ISBN 0-141-00825-3
Verdict: Everything is illuminated is clever and occasionally moving.
Reasons for reading it: I am not big into Holocaust novels, and I really wasn't all that keen to read a surreally humourous Holocaust novel. However, my family said good things about this one, Screwy especially, so I thought it worth a try.
How it came into my hands: Borrowed from my parents when I was last at home.
Everything is illuminated is not nearly as awful as most descriptions make it sound, but that's really damning with faint praise! I can't make up my mind whether it should have been written at all, but if a book like this was going to be written, it couldn't have been done better. It has exactly the right emotional balance; the humour and wackiness make it readable, but it never descends into laughing about topics that should not be mocked. Equally, the serious parts about the Nazi invasion of the Ukraine are handled sensitively, with an emotional impact that is understated enough to avoid feeling shlocky or disrespectful, and the more powerful because the silly framing story throws them into relief.
I'm not the right reader for it, in that the humour is of a type that I find intensely annoying. But I can see that objectively it is very clever, and I can quite see why the literary establishment were all over the book. Alex' malapropisms are very funny, but they annoyed me because they are not realistic mistakes for any second language speaker to make, so his voice seems artificial. The farcical journey with Grandfather and the dog is probably the aspect of the book that I found the funniest; the stuff about the history of Trachimbrod, where Foer is parodying sentimentalist, Fiddler on the Roof type depictions of shtetl life in a context of sexual grotesqueries and surrealism left me cold.
The survivor stories of Grandfather and not-Augustine are very well written. They convey the horror and inhumanity of a small part of the Holocaust as well as almost anything I've read on the subject. And the aspect covered is one not often dealt with, the early part of the Holocaust where the Nazi soldiers were "only" shooting everybody or trapping the whole community in synagogues and burning them, rather than the more famous organized transportation to death camps. The setting is Ukraine rather than the more often discussed Germany or Poland. The treatment of the experience of a non-Jew who ended up as a collaborator in a relatively speaking minor way, is very original; most Holocaust literature deals with the rare real heroes, or the unquestionably evil actual Nazis.
The problem is that I have rather a moral revulsion against making up horrors; so uncountably many real horrors happened, and there are so many evil groups who are always combing through every tiniest detail of historical accounts in order to use any minor inconsistencies as a weapon to attack Jews. It may be that this book is needed for our generation, because there are people who will read the latest literary prodigy being clever in a highly fashionable style, but wouldn't read the plainer memoirs of actual Survivors. And there's always the problem that we are running out of Survivors who can talk about their personal experiences. I do like the fact EiI is examining things like the ongoing effects of the Holocaust on the non-Jewish communities of countries invaded by the Nazis. It provides some very cynically insightful things to say about the whole Holocaust tourism industry, people like the narrator (what's the word for a fictional character who is presented as being the author of the fiction?) several generations removed from actual events, going on grand tours of Eastern Europe looking for spiritual enlightenment from the sites where their relatives were massacred. This seems a topic worth writing about.
I can't like the book though, in spite of admiring it. I don't like the idea of a fashionable, clever book, playing around with magic realism / surrealism, lots of complicated metafictive stuff and so on, based on such a subject. Note that I'm not objecting to the use of humour in connection with the Holocaust; indeed, I vastly prefer humour over the kinds of treatments that lazily use the Holocaust as a shortcut to heighten emotional tension, or worse, present things in a voyeuristic way. But it seems to be making this unspeakable aspect of history into a kind of literary game. It's not like, say, Guernica, or to take a more relevant comparison, Maus, which make art of horrific events, because those are real in a way that EiI isn't.