“I’m looking for a book.” He told the Librarian, who had cared for the Trachimbrod novels since she was a girl, and was the only citizen to have read them all. “My Great-Grandfather wrote it.”
“What was his name?”
“Safranbrod, but I think he wrote it under a pseudonym.”
“What was the name of his book?”
“I can’t remember the name. He used to talk about it all the time. He’d tell me stories from it to put me to sleep.”
“What’s it about?” She asked.
“It’s about love.”
She laughed. “They’re all about love.”
Everything is Illuminated is a beautiful book. It’s told with such humour, wisdom and ingenuity that it rates as one of the best books I’ve ever read. Let me explain why.
Everything is Illuminated is told in three styles. The first is the account of a Ukrainian boy (Alex), describing himself and his grandfather working as translators/tour guides for a visiting Jewish author (Jonathan). Jonathan is looking for a legend within his family, the woman who helped his Grandfather escape the Nazis during the second world war.
The second is the story being written by the Jewish author describing the lives of his various ancestors and the small town they lived in.
The third takes the form of reaction letters written from Alex to Jonathan in response to Jonathan’s story.
The chapters written by Alex are told with an artful level of mistranslation that manages to be linguistically inventive and simultaneously entertaining and witty. He uses the English thesaurus without any true understanding of when different words are appropriate, and so often uses words that appear overly dramatic or unnecessarily precise. To quote Alex during one scene,
"I observed that the hero had small rivers descending his face, and I wanted to put my hand on his face, to be architecture for him."
These chapters become increasingly sincere and heartfelt as the book goes on, leading up to a satisfying conclusion. They also work as a wonderful compliment to the rest of the story.
The tale of the Shtetl is equal parts whimsy, tragedy, sadness, wisdom, humour, seriousness, love and not-love. The author mixes these elements together into a formula that’s powerful and deeply moving. These sections take on a certain magical-realism that gives the proceedings an almost metaphorical, fairy-tale like quality. This style plays meaningfully with the often tough subject matter of the plot. Depression, marital infidelity, the nature of love and the Jewish holocaust are all approached with a humorous, almost irreverent attitude; however instead of diminishing them, the intelligent manner of the writing does them justice in a way that will leave me thinking about this book and remembering passages from it for a long time.
As a whole, the plot is excellently constructed. The story elements aren’t all told in a strict chronology, but are told in a way that helps the book to build a world of it’s own. By the end, I was chuckling at in-jokes from earlier in the book, or noticing repeating elements and themes that took on more and more meaning. The prose was beautiful, and to be honest, I’m slightly awed at just how clever this book is.
Everything is Illuminated is a book I think everyone should read in their life. It works on so many levels that it literally made me laugh and cry. Get it, it’s a masterpiece, and I hope it affects you the way it affected me.