Edited by Veronica Vivi
Art: Livi Prendergast https://liviprendergast.wordpress.com/
When Everything is Illuminated came out in 2002, Jonathan Safran Foer was praised by literary reviewers for writing an autobiographical novel that, among other things, “blends laughter and tears” (Abramowitz 130). The novel’s story is rather straightforward: the protagonist, also named Jonathan Safran Foer, goes on a quest to find the woman who helped to save his grandfather during the Holocaust. It was Foer’s blend of magical realism and his use of language that got the public talking about his book. Francine Prose claimed (and Scott Veale reiterated) that “not since Anthony Burgess’s novel, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, has the English language been mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio.” (Veale 28).
Foer’s novel sticks out in my mind for a much more personal reason. This novel gave me a character I could empathize with, one who attempts to answer questions about his family left in the wake of the Holocaust. I answered questions about my own history, my own Jewishness, through Foer’s quest. When Foer traces his grandfather’s origins back to the shtetl of Trachimbrod, a fictionalized version of Trochenbrod in Ukraine, it felt as if I had discovered the name of my great grandfathers’ shtetl. When he sees and feels what shtetl life was like for his ancestors, I imagined mine there too, living there alongside his family. I felt as if I was reading my own fictionalized family history; I was vicariously answering questions whose answers are otherwise unattainable. You see, the shtetls where my great-grandfathers came from were bombed and burned to the ground by the Nazis during World War Two. We have no further knowledge about their lives in Europe beyond that and our pre-anglicized names.