Looking for Augustine

James Francken

  • Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
    Hamish Hamilton, 276 pp, £14.99, June 2002, ISBN 0 241 14166 4

Advertising campaigns for new books have changed their well-established patterns, bringing the old ways of the marketplace up to date. Publishers are using the Internet to drum up business; authors have created websites that give themselves a plug. But some authors seem nonplussed by the need for all this self-promotion, distrusting the visitors their sites may attract. ‘If you are a lazy and/or unimaginative journalist,’ A.L. Kennedy chaffs on her website, ‘you may consider using the material contained in these pages to pad out your column/op-ed/ diary/think-piece/article. We would simply point out that others have been here before you.’ Kennedy anticipates the low-level curiosity of her readers – ‘never mind the work, let’s review the author’ – and prickles at misplaced interest in her life: ‘someone who sits alone for hours at a time, typing, must be really fascinating and it beats having to think about anything, doesn’t it?’ Her tone is a bit pissy, although the site itself is quite user-friendly: if you follow the links far enough, it offers a full-page photo of the author to download. The author’s photo is harder to find at tobylitt.com; it seems that the novelist has been badgered into showing off his mugshot: ‘if you really want to know, I look like this.’ But lassitude doesn’t get a look in at the website of the crime-writer Lisa Scottoline. Fired with the task of shifting copies of her latest legal thriller, out next month, Scottoline comes on strong. She has installed a web-cam in her office at home: ‘Lisa Cam’ provides a live picture every day from nine until noon so that curious fans can ‘watch her creative juices flow’.

At Jonathan Safran Foer’s website – www.theprojectmuseum.com – the interactive pages are more high-minded. The site makes brief mention of Everything Is Illuminated – the American writer’s first novel, written at the age of 20 – but the description is restrained, not revealing that it has received tremendous praise. Foer steps into his novel with the same lack of self-regard. The reason he appears, dead-centre, in Everything Is Illuminated is lightly sketched in a few pages: a young American named Jonathan Safran Foer, born in the same year as the author – the larger questions of truth-to-life remain stubbornly unanswered in the novel – arrives at a fleabag of a hotel in the Ukraine; he has come to look for the village his grandfather came from, a place he hopes to describe in a book.

In his bag, he carries a yellow, folded photograph; it shows his grandfather, in younger days, standing next to a beautiful, brown-haired woman. On the back of the photo there is a message written in Yiddish: ‘This is me with Augustine, 21 February 1943.’ The woman helped his grandfather escape a Nazi round-up; with the photograph in hand – by turns a lucky charm, potent symbol and final, long-held jigsaw piece – he sets out in search of Augustine. The questions he raises in the course of the novel – his concerns about the uncertainty of identity, the dangers of deception, the pitfalls of taking things at face value – are preoccupations shared by the novelist’s website. It shows a black and white thumbnail photo of the author, but the images he is really keen on are those of his readers. Foer has set up a ‘Self-Portrait Project’: you are invited to send off for a kit – which includes a four by six inch sheet of watercolour paper with the words ‘self-portrait of’ printed across the bottom – and to have a crack at creating a likeness of yourself, which should be returned to the author. Who knows what Foer wants with his readers’ doodles? He never says, and expects his intentions to be taken on trust: ‘at the project’s conclusion, more information will be posted here.’ Critics have trusted Everything Is Illuminated; they have forgiven Foer most things, ignoring the wrinkles in the design of a novel that doesn’t always work.

The search for Augustine is related – in retrospect, in broken English – by Alex, a Ukrainian guide Jonathan hires to help him find his way. Alex is a hopeless cicerone who blunders in and out of the novel with his first-person account; he describes the journey to Trachimbrod, the village Jonathan’s family came from, in a torrent of garbled words. His father works for a travel agency, ‘denominated Heritage Touring’ – ‘it is for Jewish people . . . who have cravings to leave that ennobled country America and visit humble towns in Poland and Ukraine’ – and Alex, with all his reservations, is expected to help out: ‘before the voyage I had the opinion that Jewish people were having shit between their brains. This is because all I knew of Jewish people was that they paid father very much currency in order to make vacations from America to Ukraine.’ He is a subversive invention, a character who is made to play the game of getting things slightly wrong. Alex may have ‘fatigued the thesaurus’, but what he really needs is recourse to a dictionary. When his sentences take a wrong turn, there can be unexpected pile-ups: colloquialisms are muddled, idioms lapse, tin-eared barbarisms follow on from phrases which have a distinctive jingle-jangle as registers clash.

Different meanings spider out from the words he misuses. Alex makes a bold gambit in the novel’s first sentences; while the blabbermouth may muff his lines – ‘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’ – the howlers and tics of language are suggestive. The sense of these words begins to ramify. Take that casual ‘dub’; Alex uses it in place of ‘call’ or ‘describe’, and the word is among his favourite solecisms. In one of its definitions, ‘dub’ brings to mind the movies. A dubbed film encourages the illusion that the audience and the actors they are watching speak the same language. It is only an illusion, as cock-ups in synchronisation prove, particularly in those painful moments when the dialogue arrives a fraction too soon, or too late, for the actor. Alex and Jonathan may try hard to explain themselves, and to understand one another, but like the cinema audience, they sense when what they see and what they hear does not quite meet. Everything Is Illuminated looks at the dislocations that are caused by war, the divisions that open up between communities, the gaps that are never bridged. Jonathan wants to find the village where his grandfather grew up ‘to see what it’s like . . . where I would be now if it weren’t for the war’. ‘You would be Ukrainian,’ Alex tells him, but the half-hearted way in which Jonathan agrees suggests that things are not that simple.

The novel sends up the mistakes in Alex’s narration – ‘my second tongue is not so premium’ he concedes – but the best jokes come out of wider misunderstandings. Alex is desperate to leave the Ukraine and become an all-American big-shot; he saves the money he earns as Jonathan’s guide to buy a plane ticket for the States. The country remains a mystery to him, however: he hankers to find an American friend who might ‘offer to take him to a Chicago Bulls game, and buy him blue jeans and white bread and delicate toilet paper’. Foer plays on the cultural lag that separates the two nations. Alex is on nodding terms with feminist ideas, but is unnerved to find that Jonathan’s mother ‘works as a professional . . . it is not unusual for his father to prepare dinner.’ The discovery that Jonathan is a full-blown vegetarian is even more unsettling; in the novel’s funniest passage, Alex faces down the awkward truth as he sits in a restaurant (his grandfather, a fuddled old man who has been roped in to the trip as the driver, is also at the table):

‘I do not understand.’ ‘I don’t eat meat.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I just don’t.’ . . . ‘Steak?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Chickens?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you eat veal?’ ‘Oh, God. Absolutely no veal.’ ‘What about sausage?’ ‘No sausage either.’ I told Grandfather this, and he presented me a very bothered look. ‘What is wrong with him?’ he asked . . . ‘They do not have anything that is not meat.’ ‘Don’t they have potatoes or something?’ he asked. ‘Do you have potatoes?’ I asked the waitress. ‘Or something?’ ‘You only receive a potato with the meat,’ she said . . . ‘Couldn’t I just get a plate of potatoes?’ ‘What?’ ‘Couldn’t I get two or three potatoes, without meat?’ I asked the waitress, and she said she would go to the chef and inquire him. ‘Ask him if he eats liver,’ Grandfather said.

Alex’s narrative has been hailed as a comic triumph. But the novel leans too heavily on the conventional idea that comedy is needed to leaven serious subject-matter; it relies on the tired notion that stories of suffering must be grounded in the minor details of ordinary life. (‘If you want to forget all your troubles,’ an old Yiddish proverb runs, ‘put on a shoe that’s too tight.’) The joke of old-country gaucherie soon palls, its possibilities exhausted. And as the humour provided by Alex’s character peters out, the novel offers up a series of decrepit gags and twice-told tales that take us over the usual jumps. Alex asks Jonathan, for instance, for translations of Yiddish words:

‘What does it mean, schmuck?’ ‘Someone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.’ ‘Teach me another.’ ‘Putz.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It’s like schmuck.’ ‘Teach me another.’ ‘Schmendrik.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It’s also like schmuck . . . everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.’

It is Jonathan who becomes the schmendrick in the novel, a bit player and the butt of Alex’s wisecracks. The search for Augustine falters; Foer slips out of his novel as easily as he had earlier stepped in. There is no story from Jonathan’s point of view to stand in counterpoint to Alex’s account of the journey to Trachimbrod. Instead, Alex’s tale is spliced together with chapters of a novel Jonathan has written, an elaborate fantasy which follows the history of his family from 1791 to 1943. This novel-within-a-novel begins with the rescue of a baby – Jonathan’s five-times great-grandmother – from the bottom of a river; it describes the tragic accident at a flour mill, when a blade came loose and ‘embedded itself, perfectly vertical’ in the middle of his triple-great-grandfather’s skull; and gets as far as Jonathan’s swaggering grandfather, who slept with 52 virgins ‘to whom he made love in each of the positions that he had studied from a dirty deck of cards’. It is a plodding fantasia that seems very taken with its not-so-clever narrative games. This is fabulation for its own sake, and a let-down, in particular because elsewhere in the novel, Foer proves himself a realist of talent.

The obvious question – why did Jonathan ever begin his search? – is never broached. It is a weakness; Everything Is Illuminated does not share the immediacy of witness literature and Jonathan must remain on the fringes of his grandfather’s experience, a stranger in many ways to his family’s past. This is a survivor’s story told from the perspective of the third generation; Jonathan is a latecomer and onlooker, but the novel tiptoes around problems of distance. All that hard-to-take narrative play leaves no room for his character to develop: we hear barely a squeak about Jonathan’s life; reflection on his own past is ignored. In its place, we get the irritating dreamwork and timeless fantasy which fills the chapters of his family history. And then there is Alex’s narrative: the novel’s interest moves to his Ukrainian grandfather, who begins to reproach himself for the loyalties he breached in wartime, his complicity in the death of a Jewish friend. There are shades of detective fiction in all this; Foer works hard to establish the Ukrainian’s motivation. It doesn’t really wash. Alex’s narrative is undermined by its relentless inevitability, its determination to get to its destination. He hopes to dumbfound with surprising revelations of his grandfather’s guilt. Foer maps the conclusions too carefully, however; everything may be illuminated, but after the ponderous way in which the story has fallen into place, the final twist is neither here nor there.