Almost friends: post-Holocaust comedy, tragedy, and friendship in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated.
Everything is Illuminated (1) by Jonathan Safran Foer is an innovative post-Holocaust novel. While like many post-Holocaust novels it is concerned with the relationship of writing to memory, it is not only interested in the perennial question posed "after Auschwitz" as to whether one can respond to the atrocities of the Holocaust through writing or whether one should remain silent. Rather, it also touches on how, in the context of contemporary post-Holocaust literature and history, writing and memory must deal with the topic of reconciliation between Jews and non-Jews of the second and third generation post-Holocaust. In Everything is Illuminated, this is specifically a question of friendship and writing. The two are intertwined: friendship is not sought after through normal channels; it is arrived at, or thwarted, through the trickery of writing. The dialogue between the two main characters illustrates this situation: each is trying to trick the other into admitting or seeing something that he doesn't want to see or admit. However, as their differing accounts, fictions, and letters make clear, one is interested in friendship whereas the other is not; one wants to remember and forgive, whereas the other seeks neither friendship nor forgiveness. Given this basic dichotomy, and as this is a novel dealing with the Holocaust, then, there is a struggle between comic and tragic modes of literary representation, the one bespeaking reconciliation, and the other its opposite, irreconcilable difference. The disparity between the two main characters' novels, identities, and, most important, their histories is delineated through this "written" and "real" struggle, a struggle which is especially significant because they come from different sides of the Holocaust divide: one is the grandchild of survivors; the other is the grandchild of the perpetrators. The outcome of this struggle has implications for anyone interested in how one represents the Holocaust, not to mention the question of reconciliation, both of which are becoming more of a concern as, with time, our distance from the Holocaust increases.
A Comic Start
Broadly stated, Foer's novel begins with a contemporary blend of the comic mode and one of its derivations, the quest Romance. According to Northrop Frye, the comic mode often presents a hero who is pitted against a villain or antagonist; in the end, the villain is either banished or transformed by the actions of the hero. (2) The quest Romance draws on this mode, but it commonly includes the hero, his antagonist, and others, who travel to find a lost object and who, in the process, transform the land, which has become depleted, back to its original splendor. In some recent (and not so recent) versions of the quest Romance, such as The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, the journey brings people from different social classes or identities together as the adventure progresses. In fact, it often consists of people who are incredibly different, even antagonistic, who during the journey undergo a transformation and become friends. This restoration of community is the goal of many such quest Romances: in fact, Northrop Frye sees this as their major feature. (3)
In Everything is Illuminated, the narrator and author of the quest Romance is a character named Alex. He is a twenty-year old Ukrainian who, together with Jonathan Safran Foer (a character in this segment of the novel), Alex's grandfather, and a dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., go on a journey to find Augustine, a gentile woman who appears in a photograph with Jonathan's grandfather, who, with her help, survived the Holocaust. Apparently, Jonathan believes he can find her in a town called Trachimbrod, where his grandfather and grandfather's family lived for almost two centuries. In a seemingly friendly gesture, and interestingly, a move never before been seen in post-Holocaust literature, Jonathan gives Alex, a gentile, the responsibility of narrating this journey. As we shall see, however, his mode of narration is entirely different from Jonathan's.
Alex calls Jonathan the "hero" of his novel. (This may be a trick, as Alex sees himself as a hero of sorts in his desire to achieve friendship with Jonathan by means of his writing.) The aim of his hero's quest is to transform the entire post-Holocaust milieu: instead of increasing the divide between victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust, Jonathan will transform his adversaries into friends or allies. Accordingly, all of the characters in Alex's novel, excepting the dog, go through a transformation. At the beginning of Alex's novel, and Jonathan's correspondence with Alex, it is clear that Alex's central deception is to use this comic narrative to endear himself to Jonathan. In Alex's view, this is necessary because Jonathan is quite pessimistic and not interested in friendship. Unfortunately for Alex and his effort to gain a friend, Jonathan sees Alex's writing as an attempt to make him forget the Holocaust, as Alex's narrative point of view presupposes a comic attitude toward the past and the present. This is to anticipate a later point, however.
Starting off the novel with a burst of comic flair, Alex first portrays himself as an easygoing Ukrainian who likes to be humorous. Ironically, he is both intentionally and unintentionally humorous, as he believes his language is "proper" when in fact it is not. His self-introduction demonstrates this double level: "My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing things that spleen a mother" (p. 1).
Then, in order to impress and ultimately befriend Jonathan, Alex plays a trick on him, making himself out to be a hustler when, in fact, he doesn't have any girlfriends: "I have many girls, believe me, and they all have a different name for me. One dubs me Baby, not because I am a baby, but because she attends to me. Another dubs me All Night.... I have a girl that dubs me Currency ... She licks my chops for it" (p. 1). He also makes comments about American culture and being cool: "I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson. I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa" (p. 2). Clearly, Alex assumes that these are things Jonathan also enjoys, and he is making a bid to win his friendship.
Alex's letters, however, written at a later time, reflect on his experiences with Jonathan and demonstrate that Jonathan was not really interested in having a friendship: "We became friends while we were in the Ukraine, yes? In a different world, we could have been friends. I will be in suspense for your next letter, and I will also be in suspense for the coming division of your novel.... Please be truthful, but also please be benevolent, please" (p. 26). There are two important things we can learn from this particular letter: first, Alex's desire for friendship was resisted by Jonathan, as Alex turns his statement into an unanswered question; and second, Alex looks at his translation (account of the journey), which is not yet finished, as an opportunity to change their relationship, thereby indicating that to this point, it has been unsatisfactory. Furthermore, Alex ends his letter with a plea that Jonathan be "truthful" yet "benevolent." These two requests seem to be contrary to each other and, at the same time, they put Alex in the position of a petitioner who is pleading for mercy.
If Jonathan eventually accepts Alex as a friend, via his writing no less, the written journey, rather than the actual journey, will result in all opposing parties finding friendship rather than antagonism, and thus, the overall structure will be comic. However, as more and more installments of Jonathan and Alex's novels are exchanged, Alex's perception of Jonathan, through his own writings and through his readings of Jonathan's novel, goes through major changes that leave him more alone than befriended. Hence, as we shall see, the ending of Alex's novel becomes more tragic than comic. The reason for the failure of comedy and the fact that the gap between Alex and Jonathan is left open has much to do with history and memory and not just the act of writing. In other words, in this novel, creative writing may lead to self-discovery, but it may not change the relationship between Jonathan and Alex, which is ultimately formed by history and memory.
Grandfather, Another Adversary or a Hidden Hero?
As pointed out above, the comic and romantic journey motif requires the transformation of adversarial parties into friends. Although from the beginning of the novel, and despite Alex's best efforts, it would seem that Alex and Jonathan are the characters most at odds, there is another character who really brings out adversarial difference: Alex's grandfather.
Alex describes his grandfather using an affable tone. He is "fat," has "gold teeth, and cultivates ample hairs on his face to comb by the dusk of every day" (p. 4). He is also grumpy and has a tendency to punch or yell at Alex. At the beginning of this book, Alex has an explanation for this: his grandfather has become "very melancholy, and also, he says, blind" after the passing of his wife. His dog, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., a "Seeing Eye Bitch" was "purchased" to compensate for his blindness. Nonetheless, this blindness does not keep him from driving: the grandfather is the driver of the taxi, which is licensed under Heritage Tours. As Alex informs us, the role of the company, as indicated by the name, is to provide Jews, like Foer, with the transport that will bring them to sites where their relatives once lived before the Holocaust. (But as the novel progresses, as we shall see, Alex also learns about his heritage as a result of this tour.)
The grandfather's adversarial nature is brought out in his relationship with Jonathan, as translated by Alex. Throughout the first half of the novel, the grandfather calls Jonathan "the Jew": "I hate Lvov. I hate Lutsk. I hate the Jew in the back seat of this car that I hate" (p. 57). This reflects a form of antisemitism, which obviously bothers Jonathan, and for a good reason.
The history of the Ukraine includes many moments of antisemitism which are, in their details, quite horrific. The Jews of the Ukraine had a very difficult and antagonistic relationship with the Ukrainians. To begin with, the Jews experienced several pogroms in the late 19th century which took the lives of many innocent Jews. (4) But the 20th century didn't fare any better: during and after civil war, which began in 1917 with the Russian revolution, 100,000 Jews were murdered. However, the worst was yet to come. After being invaded by the Nazis, Ukrainians were more than willing to give over their Jewish "neighbors." In fact, one of the worst incidents was Babi Yar (named after a ravine in Kiev) in which the Ukrainians of Kiev worked with the Nazis in perhaps the most gruesome display of barbarity during the Holocaust wherein 100,000 Jews were brutally murdered in a ravine. (5) In addition, even after World War II several incidents of antisemitism have been reported which include the torching of synagogues, defilement of gravesites, and other antisemitic acts.
Given this history and the fact that Alex's grandfather is apparently antisemitic, it is quite clear that for Alex's comic translation to work, the grandfather must drop his antisemitism and become friendly with Jonathan. In fact, as Alex's novel proceeds, we see this transformation, which is caused by a large dose of comedy; we also see its reversal.
The catalyst for friendship is intimacy. Alex uses the dog and the car as the means to friendship. When Jonathan, by means of Alex's translation, tells him that Sammy Davis Jr., after whom the dog was named, was Jewish, the grandfather becomes incredibly defensive: "'He says that the bitch was named for his favorite singer, Sammy Davis, Junior.' 'A Jew,' the hero said. 'What?' 'Sammy Davis, Junior was a Jew.' 'This is not possible,' I said. 'A convert. He found the Jewish God. Funny.' I told this to Grandfather. 'Sammy Davis, Junior was not a Jew!'" (p. 58). Even though this idea offends the grandfather, it is their first real exchange and has a positive effect on him. Furthermore, as the journey goes on, the dog breaks more boundaries: it jumps on Jonathan, humps his leg, and smells up the car with its gas. Alex uses this as a comic device to bring them closer together, as Jonathan asks that the dog be put up front and that the windows be opened. This causes the grandfather to laugh and, at the same time, to become more sympathetic toward Jonathan.
The scenes at the restaurant (pp. 63-68) have a similar comic relief function, again one which leads to reconciliation. After witnessing Jonathan's ordeal at the restaurant, the grandfather laughs and becomes more accepting of Jonathan. This is apparent when after the meal, near bedtime, Grandfather, out of nowhere, says that Jonathan is a "good boy" (p. 73). Alex is quite surprised by this change of heart, and he notes a nervous symptom that attends this change of heart: apparently, the grandfather's hands had been "shaking all day" (p. 73). (The attention to this symptom is by no means arbitrary: it is a sign that something else is going on and indeed foreshadows the release of something that has been hidden from Alex.)
After calling Alex a "good boy" and demonstrating these strange physical symptoms, the grandfather pledges to help Jonathan discover Augustine, and, by the way he conveys this surprising pledge, it seems he needs to discover Augustine for his own well being: "'We should try very inflexibly to help him.' 'We should,' I said. 'I would like very much to find Augustine,' he said. 'So would I'" (p. 73). It is at this point that he joins in the Romantic quest for Augustine. Further, it seems, from Alex's writing about his grandfather's nervous reactions, that something else is going on as well, which, when expressed, may well have a similarly cathartic and transformational outcome. As Aristotle tells us, a central feature of both tragedy and comedy is anagoresis (recognition) of what was before then unknown. (6)
When the grandfather, Alex, and Jonathan eventually find Trachimbrod, they discover a woman who they believe might be Augustine. Their reactions and questions to her show how she has become a different ideal for each of them: Jonathan asks her several questions, as he is eager to know about his past; Alex wants to know why Jonathan and his grandfather have made her into a holy grail of sorts; but the grandfather's reaction is one of distrust.
She retrieved her hands from me and put them on her knees. "I am so ashamed," she said. "You had to do anything. You could not allow anyone to see your face after." "You should be ashamed," Grandfather said. "Do not be ashamed," I told her. "Ask her how my grandfather escaped." "She does not know anything," Grandfather said. "She is a fool." "You do not have to utter anything that you do not want to utter," I told her, and she said, "Then I would never utter another word again." "You do not have to do anything that you do not want to do." "Then I would never do anything again." "She is a liar," Grandfather said, and I could not understand what was forcing him to behave this way. (p. 155)
At this point, Alex doesn't know the meaning of this strange conversation.
Afterwards, the conversation is carried on behind closed doors between the grandfather and the old woman otherwise known as Augustine. The topic of the conversation becomes the focal point of Alex's desire to find out what about this woman animates his grandfather. For Alex, the answer to this mystery represents the "truth": "It was Grandfather's talking that I desired to hear. Why could he say things to this woman that he had never before encountered when he could not say things to me? Or perhaps he was not saying anything to her. Or perhaps he was lying. This is what I wanted, for him to present not-truths to her. She did not deserve the truth, not as I deserved the truth. Or we both deserved the truth, and the hero, too. All of us" (p. 156).
Once Alex learns what the "truth" is, however, his novel takes on an ending that is more tragic than comic. This turn is, to some extent, inspired by an actual event, but it also has a great deal to do with Alex's approach to writing, an approach which, as has been indicated, will be altered by Jonathan.
After Augustine leads Alex, Grandfather, and Jonathan to what is left of Trachimbrod, Alex quotes one of Jonathan's long meditations; this is, in fact, the longest such meditation in Alex's novel. In it, Jonathan reminisces about his grandmother. He talks about how he used to "watch the world though her dresses" (p. 157). This meditation turns allegorical when he mentions how he hid in her dresses as one might hide from enemies in a fort and how he felt "safety and peace" there. Alex asks him "from what" and Jonathan replies from "not-safety and not-peace" (p. 158). This, it turns out, is the allegory of his youth, denoting as it does his feeling of being protected from harmful elements, perhaps the knowledge of the Holocaust.
Jonathan associates this desire to be protected, a wish which he now considers immature, with comedy/humor: "I remember when my grandmother once told me that I'm lucky because I'm funny" (p. 158). Alex responds by saying that Jonathan is funny. But Jonathan reacts negatively to this, and in the ensuing dialogue, Jonathan instructs Alex how to write and become more "mature." He also describes the difference between being comic and tragic with respect to facing the evils of history:
"No, that's the last thing I want to be." "Why? To be funny is a great thing." "No it's not. "Why is this?" "I used to think that humor was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is. You know what I mean?" "Yes, of course." "But now I think it's the opposite. Humor is a way of shrinking from that wonderful and terrible world." (p. 158)
After stating this, Jonathan laughs, but at things that are tragic-comic, for lack of a better word. He laughs about how his grandmother would pick him up on Friday nights. Alex, still in the naive comic mode, reads this as a display of love and understanding, but Jonathan corrects him, saying that she lifted him up because she wanted to see how much he weighed and whether he was eating enough food, since she feared, as a result of her traumatic experiences in the Holocaust where food was scarce, that Jonathan needed to eat as much as possible so he wouldn't starve. At this point, Jonathan becomes "mad" and starts screaming out words that denote his madness: he screams words that signify death and illusion, like phantasmagoria, and then he laughs. This mad laughter is reminiscent of the "sad laughter" described by the post-Holocaust novelist Raymond Federman in his last novel, Aunt Rachel's Fur. (7)
Each of Jonathan's laughs is punctuated by a pause of silence. Alex, after a while, writes: "The silence was a mountain" (p. 159). The metaphor is obvious when thought of as another Romantic comic symbol: it is a mountain that puts a gap between Alex and Jonathan, a mountain he wishes to conquer. But the idea of the mountain as a tragic symbol of isolation, rather as an obstacle to be conquered on a Romantic quest for one-ness and friendship, seems to predominate here, thereby precluding a Romantic interpretation. Importantly, this silence is the essence of Jonathan's pain (which is directly connected to the pain of the loss caused by the Holocaust (8)). Now it, like the conversation between Alex's grandfather and Augustine, becomes a mystery into which Alex is initiated. This insertion, together with the grandfather's conversation, seemingly effaces Alex's earlier intention to make his text into a comedy, and the first major movement into the tragic mode and effacement of the comic mode occurs at the end of this chapter.
When Jonathan breaks the silence with Alex, he shares another secret with Alex that is unsettling: Jonathan shows Alex his notebook in which he describes a fictional account of violence between Alex and his father, as well as a possible future outcome of such fighting in which Alex takes control. The account is grim and contains no elements of Romantic comedy or reconciliation. Of the text, Alex comments that it "at first made me angry, but then it made me sad, and then it made me so grateful, and then it made me angry again, and I went through these feelings a hundred times" (p. 160). Alex's feelings mark his response to a form of writing and self-reflection which is entirely new to him. We are watching a transformation that is more tragic than comic. Further, Alex's response obviously goes against his original intentions to write a comedy, which, we must remember, is sent to Jonathan in installments.
The comedy Alex sets out to finish is also thwarted by a number of ambiguities in the text. As we have seen above, one of these ambiguities has to do with the truth about Augustine. To make things more complicated about Augustine in this chapter, we also learn that she is linked to Jonathan's grandfather. In the midst of the conversation between Alex, Jonathan, the Grandfather and Augustine, Augustine admits to having actually known and spent time with Jonathan's grandfather before and after the war: "I know that his grandfather escaped, because I saw him once, maybe a year later maybe two.... He returned to Trachimbrod to see if the Messiah had come. We ate a meal in my house.... We were trying to make ourselves clean" (p. 190). Since Augustine is either senile or intentionally forgetful, the information she provides Jonathan about his grandfather is vague.
But the relationship of Alex's grandfather to her is even more vague: it is threaded with many strange evasions and denials. As we have shown above, they talk a lot in private, but when they discuss things openly it seems as if the grandfather is trying to censor her words or confound his own disbelief. For instance, Augustine has in her possession many boxes which are filled with memorabilia. We learn that she believes it is her mission to hold onto them until the right person, perhaps the messiah (or the man who asks for them--a request one finds in fairy tales), visits her. When they are discussing the details about how Augustine ended up with all of the boxes of memorabilia left from Trachimbrod, the grandfather enters a volley of denials with her: "'She (the person who retrieved all the materials that Augustine was guarding) went through the Jewish houses with silence, gathered everything, all of the books, the clothing, and everything.' 'Why?' 'So that they would not take it.' 'The Nazis?' 'No,' she said, 'the neighbors.' 'No,' Grandfather said. 'Yes,' Augustine said. 'No.' 'Yes.' 'No'" (p. 188). The grandfather's reactions no doubt demonstrate that he is denying the corrupt nature of the Ukrainians in Trachimbrod: he may in fact have lived in that town, but at this point we are uncertain of this.
In the penultimate section of Alex's book, entitled "An Overture to Illumination," this ambiguity is resolved, but a new one, which is entirely unexpected, manifests itself. The chapter reflects the ambiguity Alex now feels as a result both of what Jonathan has said about humor and the passage he has read from Jonathan's notebook. Despite the glimpses of a more tragic mode in the previous chapter, this one begins in a comic manner, with all members of the quest gathering at a bar, ordering drinks, and reflecting on their newfound relationships. "'Vodka,' Grandfather said. 'We should have a drink, the three of us.' 'The four of us,' I counseled, pointing to Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior.... 'You are returned,' said the waitress when she witnessed us. 'Back with the Jew,' she said. 'Shut your mouth,' Grandfather said, and he did not say it in an earsplitting voice, but quietly, as if it were a fact that she should shut her mouth" (p. 219). The grandfather goes on to insist that the waitress apologize for calling Jonathan a Jew. As pointed out above, the grandfather, at the beginning of the novel, called Jonathan "the Jew," which was no doubt meant to be derogatory and antisemitic. Later he tells Alex that Jonathan is a "good boy." But this final shift in point of view seen at the bar more clearly demonstrates the "comic" change in the grandfather: he now has an entirely different attitude towards Jews (not just towards Jonathan), which he asserts to others (not just to Alex).
But after this encounter, Alex takes out a box that he has received from Augustine. The box is marked "in case," which suggests that it is a box one opens when all else fails. The grandfather insists that they open it. What follows turns the comedy more definitely towards tragedy. Alex is the first to put his hand in the box; he pulls out an old map of Trachimbrod, which he says he will give to his younger brother, Igor. The map may, at least in part, represent his attempt to "map" out the imaginary town constructed by Jonathan (to which we will turn in the next section). Then Jonathan reaches into the box and pulls out "The Book of Past Occurrences." This accords well with a comic view of a successful quest, as it provides Jonathan with an account of the past in Trachimbrod, something for which, according to Alex's story, he was looking from the start. The grandfather is the last to put his hand in the box. He pulls out a photograph, but doesn't really pay attention to it, saying it "appeared very simple and ordinary. There were likely one hundred photographs of this manner in the box" (p. 225).
But as Alex dips back into the box, Jonathan interrupts the ritual. After looking at the photo, he screams out at the Grandfather: "It's you" (p. 225). With this preliminary anagoresis of sorts, Jonathan goes on to point out that it is indeed grandfather in the picture. On the one hand, this clarifies the ambiguity concerning the question as to whether the grandfather really lived in Trachimbrod. On the other hand it pushes the grandfather to the edge of confessing something that turns the entire novel around. In fact, Alex writes in brackets that this part is too hard for him to write as it disrupts his comic vision: "Here it is almost forbidding to continue ... my hand shakes so that I can no longer hold my pen. Do it for me. Please. It is now yours" (p. 226). However, Alex continues his account, and we see how comedy has been used by Alex to conceal tragedy and protect his grandfather and himself from tragic things: "'Who do you think it is?' he asked. 'I do not know.' 'You do not have to present non-truths to me, Sasha. I am not a child.' (But I do. This is what you always fail to understand. I present non-truths in order to protect you. That is why I try so inflexibly to be a funny person. Everything is to protect you. I exist in case you need to be protected.)" (p. 227).
As his grandfather begins to tell his story, Alex, whose other name is Sasha, (9) breaks down and admits to being as sad as Jonathan, and as we shall see, many of the characters in Jonathan's story about Trachimbrod, the shtetl (referred to briefly above). But even now, this sadness is tinged with ambiguity: "I must inform you, Jonathan, that I am a very sad person. I am always sad, I think.... Perhaps this signifies that I am not sad at all.... Perhaps I am the only person in the world, then, who never becomes sad" (p. 227). The ambiguity comes from the fact that Alex doesn't know how to deal with such a breakdown or what it means to be sad. For this reason, he copies Jonathan's grandmother's statement that he is "lucky because he is funny" to show that its not easy for him to give up a comic Romantic perspective, to quit lying, and to open himself up to pain.
At the end of the chapter, we learn what Alex has been afraid of and has known all along, something he witnessed in his real journey with Jonathan and his grandfather, but wanted to avoid writing about: namely, that his grandfather murdered his best friend, a Jew named Herschel. This is the event foreshadowed throughout the novel, all the way from the inception of the journey when the grandfather begins to shake when he calls Jonathan a good boy to his strange encounter with Augustine. It is what Alex has attempted to disguise through his ultimately unsuccessful assumption of a Romantic comic perspective. Importantly, it becomes the central anagoresis for all of the characters. However, the magnitude and effect of this recognition is only brought out in the final chapter of Alex's novel, "Illumination." But before we turn to that chapter in Alex's novel, we need to look into Jonathan's book, as it both plays a major part in Alex's transformation and shows Jonathan's approach to his own heritage.
Jonathan's Revised Jewish History
It could be argued that in its broad outlines, Jonathan's narrative is a fable. However, according to Bruno Bettelheim, the fable is essentially optimistic; it cannot be tragic. (10) He argues that its function is to teach children how to successfully cope with major traumas and difficulties in life. (Likewise, John Gardner, in his book On Moral Fiction (11) sees the fable and the epic as examples of art at its highest form: as a form of moral instruction [p. 30].) While the section written by the author/character "Jonathan Safran Foer" owes a debt to the fable, then, we see something quite different emerging from it.
Although this section begins as many fables do, it is merely a means of deceiving the reader who believes he or she will find a moral and optimistic lesson. The real lesson is, in fact, both pessimistic and tragic. For one thing, it does not seem to provide the materials necessary to cope with trauma; and in this sense, it differs from the fable. Furthermore, this text can be read as a tragic counter text to Alex's Romantic comic text. But although it also goes from the comic to the tragic, it does so in an artistically calculated manner, whereas in its movement from comic to tragic, Alex's text does not. On the one hand, it seems as if Alex records his narrative decision to change his text from comic to tragic, as a result of the external forces imposed upon him; Jonathan's text, on the other hand, seems to be both more consistent and more independent of outside influence.
In Jonathan's fable, there is a meditation on what we will call the quasi-mythic-genealogy of Jonathan Safran Foer's past where he proliferates names and identities in such a way that a comic postmodern sensibility concerned with the meaning of identity is developed. This fluid revision of the past is an exposure of Jonathan Safran Foer's deepest fantasies and fears with respect to his identity and his history; it is also a sketch of the many new identities which are possible for Jonathan's Jewish identity given this revised past. In addition, Foer's notion of the comic is morally neutral and depicts his lineage in terms that Alex finds reprehensible, given their outright fictioning. In other words, Jonathan's version of the past has no qualms about being openly fictional and deceptive while at the same time being entirely open to melancholy and tragedy. By way of contrast, Alex's account does all it can to cover up the fact that it is a fiction: it is a comedy that tries to avoid being a tragedy.
Strangely enough, the Trachimbrod fable is the section least commented on by book reviewers, (12) as it is not as stylistically advanced as Alex's novel, which was, in large part, printed originally in The New Yorker. This omission seems odd, as it is one of the central narratives of the novel and, in fact, helps Alex and Jonathan grow both closer to each other and farther apart. Alex, in his letters to Jonathan, makes comments after each section of this quasi-mythic-genealogy which reveal his identification with its narratives (and ultimately their author) and, at the same time, his repulsion. These comments indicate that Alex is reading the text in a self-reflexive manner, and that in so doing, he questions his own values and beliefs, not to mention those of Jonathan. Thus, we can now comment with some confidence that Jonathan's novel helps Alex understand the traumas Jonathan is coming to the Ukraine to deal with, and, in relation to this, Alex begins to see the difference between Jews and non-Jews with respect to the Holocaust. As we shall see, this understanding plays an important role in the development of Alex's character, which, as noted above, is transformed at the end of his journey.
To begin with, Foer explores a space of Europe looked down upon by the Jews in Germany and Austria of the 19th and 20th century, as it represented a backwardness that they felt they had left far behind. Foer's fictional Eastern European space resembles the world of Chelm brought to us by I. B. Singer; although, admittedly, it is much more elaborate than Singer's world. Like Chelm, this part of Europe is a self-contained world; but to continue the literary allusions, it is more like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's Macondo in 100 Years of Solitude, as it is a space within which many people live in dreams, experience bouts of insomnia, and involve themselves in odd and transgressive sorts of sexuality and acts of violence. As in Macondo, we hear nothing of the world outside. Trachimbrod is totally self-enclosed: a mythic space where almost anything can happen.
In Trachimbrod, the relationship between identity, allegory, the body, sex, joy, melancholy, and language is explored through Foer's comic-revisionist history. Each scene in this section is an allegory of sorts that Alex, in his letters, attempts to decipher.
The first allegory deals with what I will call the allegory of the origin--the construction of meaning out of fragments or the gathering of fragments. In the first section, we learn of an accident, one might say the primal accident. (The date of this accident, March 18, 1791, is worth noting, as it takes place soon after the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 and a few years before the "Pale of Settlement" established by Catherine the Great. (13) In an odd way, it parallels these historical events of emancipation and exile, because it is libratory for Jonathan, who uses it to explore unknown aspects of himself through a quasi-mythic history of his family's lineage; yet, at the same time, it can also be seen as a prelude to the Holocaust.) In this accident a man, woman, and child drive into a river. Unfortunately, only the baby girl survives, and she is left alone floating in the fragments. This allegory no doubt denotes a beginning born of trauma, wherein the subject of the trauma is floating in fragments. (14) And if we look at this as a reflection of its author, it could imply that not just his lineage, but his task as a writer begins after the disaster (15): his role is to take fragments, in the form of words, representations, and memories of the past, and bring them together into a narrative (albeit a fragmented one). This parallels the fragments (i.e., the people) we see gathered in the bar at the end of the journey. Notably, given the allegory of the crash and the resulting floating fragments, these human fragments initiate Jonathan's novel.
To return to the story of the initial crash, a girl goes out in the water amidst these fragments. Thus, Foer provides us with an image of what I will call originary fragmentation: "Chana laughed, splashing at the mass that grew like a garden around her. She picked up the hands of a baby doll, and those of a grandfather clock. Umbrella ribs. A skeleton key. The articles rose on the crowns of bubbles that burst when they reached the surface" (p. 9). Notice that she joyfully (in "laughter") swims amongst the fragments and that they form around her like a garden. This exotic image makes the task of gathering fragments a joyful one. However, in this opening scene, the objects have no symbolic meaning; such meaning accrues only after the baby comes into the picture.
Once the baby girl (Brod) is discovered by the people of the town, which is named after the father who died, Trachim, and his baby daughter, Brod (Trachimbrod), two different groups fight over her. One is called the Uprighters, and the other is called the Slouchers. The Uprighters are synonymous with zealous Jews, and the Slouchers are synonymous with a Woody Allen-ish vision of the Chassidim. Their respective depictions are fairytale-like in their simplicity, and a tableau is created: the Uprighters dangle from the ceiling of their synagogue and yell out words to those below (all of these words are written in capital letters), while the Slouchers have a synagogue on wheels that is constantly moving from one side of town to the other. It doesn't have a Torah in it. Rather, it has something called the Book of Recurrent Dreams. In this book are found countless accounts of dreams people have had over the generations. The Slouchers open the book for insights (as one might open an I-Ching). They contribute to tradition by putting new entries into it. By way of contrast, the Rabbis have a book called the Book of Antecedents to which they make reference (it is not added to--the law permits no alteration). The narrator obviously favors the Slouchers, as they are less authoritarian and are more into dreams and fantasies (like Jonathan himself). Furthermore, the Book of Recurrent Dreams is a parody of the Book of Antecedents, which also parallels the book found in the "In Case" box in the bar.
After a lottery, Brod is given a surrogate father; yet he is told not to inform her that she is an orphan. The man to whom she is given is Yankel D (otherwise known as Safran--Jonathan's middle name), a Sloucher. Thus begins Jonathan's lineage, which derives from a long line of Slouchers. It is worth noting here that each link in this line of Slouchers marks another meditation on trauma, loss, perversion and broken love, which Jonathan no doubt inherits. In addition, each meditation is a device used to affect Alex's conception of comedy as a proper representational mode for depicting Jonathan's journey.
Yankel is a man who has had the unfortunate experience of having his fiance (his "never wife") leave him. He lives with the trauma of this loss, and he reads and re-reads her goodbye letter perpetually. After Brod grows to an age when she can ask questions, she asks about her mother (she thinks her mother was Yankel's wife). He lies to her and makes up stories about their relationship. Arguably, this is a sublimation of his loss (it could be read as an allegory of the entire tale, as the story is a sublimation of the loss caused by the Holocaust). This is paralleled by the story where we learn that Jonathan has a picture of a non-Jewish woman named Augustine, who appears in a photo with his dead grandfather. Both stories evince a yearning to know and learn about the past (this can be read as a sublimation of the love and loss found in Safran's situation.)
Before Safran dies, he experiences serious memory loss and, as in 100 Years of Solitude, he writes notes all over his home to remind himself of the names of things. The beauty of this narration is that it demonstrates the desire to retain memory as the only link to life. One of the things he struggles most to remember is that he once loved a woman. Brod is no doubt affected by this, and takes on melancholic ideas about love and its connection to loss and desire as a result. On the night of his death, which happens at the height of his memory loss, she is raped. But she doesn't look negatively on this and ends up marrying the man who did it!
The sexual perversity that ensues after this event is too long to detail at length, but a few things will be noted. To begin with, even before the rape (in fact, at the beginning of the story), a character named Sofkiwah is hanging around. He only thinks of sex, whether with himself, other people, or objects. This perversity rubs off on the Foer lineage in some way, as Brod's husband, Kolker, has a strange accident involving a buzz saw being lodged in his head (p. 125), and thereafter takes on a perverse sexuality with Brod. Instead of having normal sexual relations, they have sex through a hole in the wall. They say and do things to each other through the hole: "She pushed her bed against the wall so she could hear him mutter his passionate profanity and feel the wiggle of his extended index figure, which could neither hurt nor caress in such a position" (p. 134). As this goes on, Brod becomes more melancholic, yet she continues to support Kolker in this manner until his death.
In his letter commenting on this text, Alex is puzzled by this perversity. He can't understand how this could be called love or how Brod could be unhappy all the time yet still love: "Although I am happy that they were able to discover a kind of love, I am not happy because it really was not love, was it? One could learn very much from the marriage of Brod and Kolker. I do not know what, but I am certain that it has to do with love" (p. 143). Nonetheless, Alex goes on, in this letter, to show how reading this account has made him more honest: he admits to having exaggerated and lied about himself in the beginning of the novel, especially with respect to being a ladies' man:
(With our writing, we are reminding each other of things. We are making one story, yes?) I must inform you something now. This is a thing I have never informed anyone, and you must promise that you will not inform it to one soul. I have never been carnal with a girl. I know. I know. You cannot believe it, but all the stories that I told you about my girls who dub me All Night, Baby, and Currency were all non-truths. I think I manufacture all those non- truths because it makes me feel like a premium person. (p. 144)
This is obviously confusing for him. Yet as a result, he exposes his fictional character to Jonathan. (This fictional identity is designed for a fictional and comic character, Alex, not a traumatized character named Sasha.) He does so because he believes that Jonathan is exposing things that one would ordinarily be ashamed of; hence, he responds in kind by admitting that he has done something shameful: he has lied.
However, we should not mistake what Jonathan is saying as an admission of something shameful; in fact, Foer writes of these events as if they were normal and had no moral content whatsoever. But this confuses Alex and forces him to rethink his own way of seeing the world, as expressed in his comic writing style which is clearly far from this postmodern experimental form of allegorical, ironic, and value-free comedy.
Jonathan's final character, his grandfather, also has love issues that confuse Alex: he is a man with a dead arm which women want to feel "inside" them. For this reason, he sleeps with many women, many of whom are widows, and ends up falling in love with a gypsy. This love affair brings us up to the invasion of the Nazis, which happens on the night the grandfather is to marry a Jewish woman. But, according to Jonathan's story, the grandfather has no regrets about this, and, once again, Alex is confused about this kind of love: "I have learned many momentous lessons from your writing, Jonathan. One lesson is that it does not matter if you are guileless, or delicate, or modest. Just be yourself. I could not believe that your grandfather was such an inferior person, to be carnal with the sister of his wife, and on the day of his wedding, and to be carnal while standing.... How could you do this to your grandfather, writing about his life in such a manner if he was alive? And if not, what does that signify?" (p. 179).
In short, Jonathan's writing introduces transgression and confusion into Alex's life. It ruins his concept of love and truth and makes him, in some way, "mad": "We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? The both of us? Do you think that it is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred? If your answer is no, then why do you write about Trachimbrod and your grandfather in the way you do, and why do you command me to be untruthful? If your answer is yes, then this creates another question, which is if we are to be such nomads with the truth, why do we not make the story more premium than life?" (p. 179). Alex goes on to suggest that if one were going to lie, the "more premium" story would be the one with perfect endings and reconciliations; in other words, a Romantic comedy. He can't understand why Jonathan would want to include things that we don't want to include in our accounts of life. (16) As we have seen, however, this reflects Alex's hidden desire all along in his own comic novel, a desire that is eventually broken down.
The Final Illumination
The final breakdown of this desire for a "story more premium than life" is found in the last chapter of Alex's account, "Illumination." Here we learn that Alex's grandfather has committed suicide. In response to this, and in response to Alex's confused emotions about his own identity because of his grandfather's confession to murdering a Jew, Alex's narration ends with a version of his grandfather's confession of his love for his best friend Herschel whom he murdered during the Holocaust.
To translate both his breakdown and his Grandfather's emotional breakdown, the text is written in one long sentence. It finishes with the grandfather pointing at Alex and his little brother saying they are Jews. On the one hand, this demonstrates how, in the madness of the Holocaust, everyone, including family and friends, were suspected of being or harboring a "Jew." On the other hand, this is exactly what his grandfather did with Herschel. But Alex finishes the text with a question directed at Jonathan and perhaps at himself as well: "Canheeverbeforgiven for his finger for whatisfingerdid for whathepointedto and didnotpointto for whathetouchedinhislife and whathedidnottouch he is stillguilty I am I am I am IamI?" (p. 252). Here we see a complete transformation of Alex, inspired, to a large extent by Jonathan's novel. He has been exposed to things he would not ordinarily think about, and has been affected by his own recounting of what Jonathan has said about comedy. Hence, reading and commenting on Jonathan's story, as well as writing his own, have set him up for this final encounter with his heritage which is, let us not forget, a written one and a historical one.
But Alex doesn't give up so easily. He knows, as Shakespeare knew and expressed in such comedies as the Tempest and the Merchant of Venice, that forgiveness is the essence of comedy. It is his last opportunity to change this tragedy into a comedy. For this reason, his words in this final chapter of his book express a desire to be forgiven, a desire he shares with his grandfather, even though, unlike his grandfather, he has not "pointed the finger." In fact, he identifies with both the person who pointed the finger and the Jew! This is the "heritage" he discovers. Alex goes from someone who doesn't know what a Jew is in the beginning of the story to identifying himself as a Jew as well as the murderer of the Jew.
To come to this point, wherein he would identify with a contradictory and self-destructive emotion, he has to read Jonathan's perverse account of his past and be disturbed by it. As we have seen above, this leads him to question the meaning of truth and his Romantic ideals about love and its power to conquer all. Jonathan's stories teach him that love can be broken, fragmented, and contradictory. Alex's comic optimism, which we find throughout the first half of the book, gradually diminishes as the story progresses. But in the ending of Alex's account, there remains a plea for a comic ending, one which would require Jonathan's forgiveness. Unfortunately for Alex, Jonathan doesn't respond.
We don't hear of any letter sent back to Alex that grants forgiveness. Rather, Jonathan leaves us with a final and account of his Trachimbrod book. This is actually quite bizarre: the book ends with the anniversary of the disaster that started Trachimbrod, namely, a carnival. The carnival of joy turns into a bloodbath, transforming joy into terror. At the very end of this account is a recorded dream, taken from the Book of Recurrent Dreams: a dream of apocalypse. This is nothing less than Jonathan's assertion that he can neither forgive nor forget what happened, even if he has imagined it all, which indeed is the case. (This is not simply an ironic viewpoint; it delimits an essential difference between Jonathan and Alex, and it repeats Eli Wiesel's imperative to "never forget.")
Even after the final "illumination" in Alex's novel and the tragic ending of Jonathan's fable, the last letter to Jonathan, which is not from Alex, bespeaks a bizarre tragic-comic ending. It shows how even though Alex's novel ends on a tragic note, his life may not, but it also puts Jonathan in a difficult position from which, it seems, he cannot escape.
The letter is supposedly written by the grandfather moments before his suicide: "If you are reading this, it is because Alex found it and translated it for you. It means that that I am dead, and that Sasha is alive" (p. 274). The letter goes on to make a plea for Alex, demonstrating that Jonathan "should" recognize him as a good person: "It is important that you know what kind of man he is, so I will tell you here" (p. 274). In this letter, the grandfather makes it clear that Alex is able to accept that he will not be forgiven. He will take Jonathan's advice and be strong. In other words, Alex can face the ugly realities before him without resorting to comedy. He can be independent (mature), which is seemingly what Jonathan wanted to teach him.
Further, there has been a total reversal in the grandfather's role. Instead of playing a minor role in the family, he has taken on responsibility for his family: "All is for Sasha and Iggy, Jonathan. Do you understand? I would give everything for them to live without violence. Peace. That is all that I would ever want for them" (p. 275). After this, the narrative sways between providing an account of a fight between Sasha (Alex) and his father, and the grandfather insisting that he would give "everything for them to live without violence." This narrative ends with the grandfather in front of the "luminescence" of the TV, where earlier in the novel Alex tells us he cries, with hands shaking, the sign of his guilt for murder. Supposedly there is a connection between the violence downstairs, which he describes in this letter, and his suicide.
But ultimately, and this is the "catch," the words cited in the beginning of this letter, which have been pulled from Jonathan's fictional entry in his notebook, indicate that they were the cause of this fight and its attendant suicide: "He told his father that he would care for Mother and Little Igor. It took his saying it to make it true. Finally, he was ready" (p. 274). The twist is that these words are clearly not the grandfather's, as he never saw Jonathan's diary, and the repetition of them is a postmodern literary device: it indicates the presence of the author, as well as the fictionality of this letter and the suicide. But something else is at work here as well: a dialectic of history and forgiveness, which, though in the midst of creative writing and postmodern play, still rings from the beginning until the "fictional" end of this text.
For Jonathan to forgive the grandfather and, in effect, Alex, as indicated in the final chapter of Alex's book and in this letter, would be, for Jonathan, to forget about the Holocaust. A comic ending is thus precluded, and Alex's and the grandfather's "trick" is anticipated by Jonathan. Indeed, the purpose of the final texts of Alex and his Grandfather is to make Jonathan feel that the grandfather's suicide and the violence in Alex's home are a result of Jonathan's unwillingness to accept apologies and forgive. But the fact is that the character named Jonathan Safran Foer can't get out of his predicament. More importantly, nor can any of the rest of us, if we insist that history must not be forgotten.
This predicament is stretched to its limit in this novel, since, from its beginning, there is, according to Alex's quest Romance, a friendship which develops between Alex, the grandfather, and Jonathan. If we cannot look at the Holocaust in a comic way, but can only look at it in a tragic manner, as most of this novel suggests, does this imply that it is impossible to forgive the other because of his or her "heritage?" Is Jonathan wrong in associating Alex with his grandfather, or did Alex do this from the beginning of his novel? And should we associate the third generation with the original perpetrators? Is this their "heritage?"
Although this is an important question, it is complicated and perhaps even effaced by one point in the story which is overlooked by both Alex and Jonathan. This point makes Jonathan's refusal to forgive or even respond quite odd. In addition, it complicates the theme of bridging difference between second and third generation Ukrainians and Jews which we have seen at work throughout the novel.
Before Alex's grandfather admits to killing Herschel, his best friend, there is one paragraph in which Augustine sees this picture for the first time and mentions Herschel and his best friend Eli, who lived in a nearby shtetl (p. 152). She then mentions that Eli killed Herschel. Alex's grandfather responds violently to this claim. Alex and Jonathan miss the meaning of this moment: if the grandfather killed Herschel, and Augustine tells them that Eli killed Herschel, then the grandfather is Eli; he is Jewish. The reason her reminiscence about Herschel doesn't have any effect on them is because, at that point, the grandfather had not told Alex or Jonathan about the murder. This sheds some "light" on the chapter entitled "illumination." Above we noted that Alex uses this chapter as one of his final opportunities to gain forgiveness and friendship from Jonathan. He uses his grandfather's breakdown and cites the "mad" claim that they are all Jews.
But in retrospect, there is one moment that shows that Jonathan actually did pick up on what Augustine had said about Eli. Alex notices this too but he doesn't understand it: "Grandfather also pointedatme and said heisaJew and you also pointed athim and said he is a Jew" (p. 252). The term "you," in this passage, may be referring to Jonathan. But this is not clear because this passage has no setting. It is simply a creative rendering of a conversation that Alex had with his grandfather; for this reason, Jonathan may not be there, or, if he is, this is not some open declaration made by the grandfather; it is made by Jonathan. However, it may be imaginary. Either way, the grandfather right until the very end of the novel does not think of himself or recognize himself as a Jew. Alex doesn't even see this as a major point and doesn't mention it; and it shows up nowhere in any of Jonathan's writings or in the final letter to Jonathan. If anything, the grandfather's being Jewish only matters for the reader. It only confuses Alex and bleeds into a plea for forgiveness which has less to do with a denial of Jewish identity and more to do with the fact that grandfather murdered Herschel. That is the illumination, not his Jewish identity which, if it is illuminated, is illuminated by Jonathan (who refuses to claim this illumination).
What is most surprising about this moment is that even though Jonathan, according to Alex's account (which has been, as we have seen thus far, geared toward comedy), calls the grandfather a "Jew," Jonathan doesn't say anything about this. He remains silent and thus retains the original plot of difference between victim and perpetrator (Ukrainian and Jew) by not answering Alex. Nonetheless, this moment complicates the conflict of different heritages that this novel is hinged upon, as it is a Jew who killed his Jewish brother, not a Ukrainian. Furthermore, although Alex, in the "final illumination" chapter, uses his grandfather's breakdown and assertion that everyone in the eyes of the Nazis is Jewish to win Jonathan's sympathy (as they are all Jews), this ruins Alex's comic plot because his grandfather is really not an antisemitic Ukrainian; he is a self-hating Jew, who to the very end of the novel insists that he was protecting Alex, perhaps from finding out that he was Jewish, not that he murdered his best friend! Furthermore, even though Jonathan may acknowledge this, according to Alex's account, it doesn't make a difference in the end, as Jonathan gives no response.
Given the fact that Jonathan doesn't respond to Alex's account of his grandfather's "coming out" and Jonathan's "coming out" (seeing the grandfather's Jewishness as a revelation) with sympathy (as Alex imagines a Jew would), we need to ask what Jonathan's Jewish heritage, that is, his Jewish identity, is based on. On the one hand, it is quite clear that his refusal to acknowledge Alex's plea for forgiveness puts him in the camp of those who link Jewish identity to the memory of the Holocaust. Yet, on the other hand, Jonathan's account of his Jewish history is fraught with ambiguity, misery, and absurdity. In addition, his omission of grandfather's Jewish identity is quite odd: it marks a refusal to think of the implications of Jews killing other Jews and the fact that Ukrainian Jews are afraid to "come out" and admit their Jewishness perhaps for fear of reprisals. Given this, it is difficult to say that he is proud of his Jewish identity and history or thinking through either in a thorough manner. If anything, one wonders if he is indifferent to his identity and this omitted fact, which changes the picture entirely. Nonetheless, regardless of this omission, he sees his history and his position vis-a-vis history as a fact of difference; otherwise, he wouldn't insist, to the very end of his novel, on his difference from Alex and his Grandfather, let alone his rejection of the comic mode. This proves that his identity, like the end of this novel, is caught up in these questions of history and forgiveness. This novel shows that these questions have much to do with not only how we view the other but with how we view ourselves.
Sue-Ann Weissmark, in her book Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II (17) notes something that is directly connected to Foer's omission and lack of response to Alex's "final illumination," which is related to Jonathan's Jewish identity and the denial of Jewish identity by the grandfather throughout the novel: many Jews insist on their position as (what Weissmark calls) absolute victims by refusing to accept that there were Jews who were also working together with the perpetrators in the planning, managing, and organizing of many aspects of the Holocaust. According to Weissmark, this refusal causes Jews of the second and third generation to insist on the absolute guilt of the other. In other words, if people of the second and third generation saw themselves as containing such ambiguities, and simply dealt with these implications, which Jonathan obviously does not, it would be easier for them to listen to the other instead of insisting that the descendants of the perpetrators are, like their grandparents or parents, evil. For Weissmark, friendship or reconciliation is only possible in these terms. Perhaps, for this reason, Jonathan refuses both comedy and friendship to the very end. Given Weissmark's comments, we can argue that his very identity as a post-Holocaust Jew is based on this very omission of ambiguity!
But there is one other element of the novel, which up until now has not been mentioned, and can have a bearing on our assessment of the novel: Jonathan's attitude toward his grandfather's being with a non-Jewish woman. In Alex's novel, we learn that the picture of Jonathan's grandfather and Augustine suggests that they may have been lovers; Jonathan struggles with this thought. Yet in his fable he has no qualms about his grandfather's having a gypsy lover with whom he could have eloped before choosing an arranged marriage (albeit one about which he had no qualms). This ambivalence about the relationship of the Jew and the non-Jew, a relationship of love and not just friendship, informs the dialectic of history and friendship in this novel and strengthens the questions in the end.
Is Jonathan not willing to forgive Alex and his grandfather for historical reasons or for sexual reasons? Is the relationship between the Jew and the non-Jew what bothers Alex or is it merely imaginary? If it is, is history imaginary too? Or is difference impossible to overcome when it is associated with history? How does this relate to the other question mentioned above which concerns the omission of Jewishness--either as a denial out of fear or a refusal to acknowledge that Jews also killed their own people? Perhaps these are the questions that bring about our sad laughter. (18)
(1) Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).
(2) See Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 43-52; 193.
(3) Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism, p. 190.
(4) See John Doyle Klier, ed., Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
(5) See Anatoli Kuznestov, Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel, trans. David Floyd (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970) and Yitzhak Arad, ed., The Einsatzgruppen Reports (New York: Holocaust Library, 1989).
(6) See A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J. L. Ackrill (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 549. (Note that Ackrill doesn't translate "anagoresis" as "recognition" in this passage, but for some reason decides instead to leave the Greek word peripeteia, "a change of fate," untranslated.)
(7) See Raymond Federman, Aunt Rachel's Fur (Normal: FC2 Press, 2001).
(8) See George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York: Athenaeum, 1977). Also see its rebuttal: Lawrance Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975). In both of these important works of post-Holocaust literary criticism, Steiner and Langer approach Theodore Adorno's statement/injunction that to "write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" in entirely different ways. Steiner thinks that silence should be kept over this event because it defies and even destroys language, whereas Langer believes idioms can and have in fact been created by post-Holocaust writers to represent the Holocaust. In the end, however, both agree that there is much that defies any "traditional" representation of this event, although in a different degree. Foer is pointing out that silence does in fact separate Alex from Jonathan as their relation to the Holocaust is entirely different; moreover, it also demarks the fact that Alex's mode of representation, the comic, is certainly (for both Langer and Steiner) not the proper mode to represent the Holocaust.
(9) Although Sasha is the diminutive of Alexander in Ukrainian, here it denotes the other side of Alex which is concealed. In fact, it can be argued that Alex's concealment of this more "personal" name from Jonathan is another act of deception which protects him from thinking about his "heritage." For an excellent account of how names can be used to cover up truth, see Maurice Blanchot, Writing the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).
(10) See Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Vintage, 1979), pp. 12; 35-36.
(11) See John Gardener, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
(12) See Francine Prose, "Back in the Totally Awesome U.S.S.R.," New York Times, April 14, 2002 and Mark Lawson "Guile by the Mile," The Guardian, June 8, 2002.
(13) See Howard Sachar, The Course of Modern Jewish History (New York: Dell, 1958). According to Sachar, the Jews in France were liberated in 1791. But in Poland (which included at that time what today are eastern European countries) something else was going on.
(14) See Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah and its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1969). His account of the Kabbalistic creation myth in Kabbalah and its Symbolism, qua the "shattering of the vessels" into fragments, is a great analogue for Foer's opening narrative: "The central plan of Creation originates in the lights which shine in strange refraction from the eyes of Adam Kadmon (the 'primal man' who existed before creation). For the vessels which, themselves consisting of lower mixtures of light, were designated to receive this mighty light of the sefiroth from his eyes and so to serve as vessels and instruments of creation, shattered under its impact. This is the decisive crisis of all divine and created being, the 'breaking of the vessels,' which Luria identifies with the Zoharic image of the 'dying of primordial kings'.... Two hundred and eighty-eight sparks from the fire of judgment,' the hardest and the heaviest, fall, mingling with the fragments of the broken vessels. For after the crisis nothing remains as it was.... Everything is somewhere else. But a being that is not in its proper place is a being in exile" (p. 112). Scholem goes on to describe how, according to Kabbalists, these fragments (sparks) or beings in exile have to be "led back and redeemed" (p. 112). In consonance with the title, we might say that when all the sparks are gathered together, "Everything is Illuminated." But here it is the act of the artist who gathers the sparks together, not Jews performing the commandments (which is what the Kabbalists intended). Susan Handelman's book, Fragments of Redemption (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) provides an excellent reading of Scholem's inclination to Romanticism and argues that his readings of Kabbalah reflect a Romantic concept of art which focuses on fragments and aims to gather them together.
(15) See Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, for a philosophical analysis of the relationship between writing and disaster. He sees the two as inextricably related to each other.
(16) See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). In a section on Celine's fiction entitled "Suffering and Horror," Kristeva argues that Celine's writing is "abject" in the sense that it says things that we normally don't want to hear about dealing with perversion, violence, waste, and so on. She argues that this is a "crying-out theme of suffering horror" which actually corresponds to the "truth of humanity" and "writing": "The sacred and history, Notre Dame and Pompeii, meaning and law, in the tremendous unveiling of suffering and death of the Second World War, give birth to their gruesome hidden side. And the all-powerful obverse of the fragile culture is, in the eyes of Celine the truth of the human species; for the writer, it is the point of departure of scription as the laying bare of meaning" (p. 154). Alex's words are, according to Kristeva's understanding, correct. Both he and Jonathan have indeed become "nomads of truth" because they are sharing the abject. The revelation of this effaces accepted truths and makes truth into "something other." The point of departure for writing is the abject and writing express the theme of "crying out," which is exactly what Jonathan is doing in his narrative influenced by the Holocaust.
(17) See Sue-Ann Weissmark, Justice Matters: Legacies of the Holocaust and World War II (London: Oxford University Press, 2004).
(18) In Weissmark's book, there is an effort to overcome differences between second and third generation survivors and children of Nazis; however, she argues that this does not necessitate forgetting the Holocaust. Her book, which was recently published, demonstrates how Foer's novel hits on a key issue for the future of Holocaust identity which must include a dialogue with those who have inherited the "heritage" of the Holocaust: both perpetrators and victims are thus implicated.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
|Previous Article:||The Chosen: defining American Judaism.|
|Next Article:||Just a Jew named Joe.|