Everything is Iluminated: Essay Q&A
1. Examine the relationship between Alex, his father and grandfather.
Violence and a desire for control are at the heart of the characterization of Alex’s father, but he is a largely silent figure that is only knowable through Alex or his grandfather.
It is not until Alex’s grandfather reveals his background and his betrayal of Herschel in order to save himself and his family, and that his name is Eli and that he comes from Kolki rather than Odessa, that some further insight is given as to why his son has grown up to behave monstrously with his children. Alex’s grandfather suggests strongly that this is his fault and it is because he hid the truth of what happened and because he loved his baby son so much he ‘made love impossible’.
2. Analyze Jonathan’s desire to search for Trachimbrod.
Jonathan is driven initially to come to the area by the wish to find Augustine, who he believes rescued his grandfather after he left Trachimbrod. The search is, in some ways fruitless, as when he and the others arrive there they discover that there is no trace left of the village.
It is as though the search and the desire to look back to the past and remember his antecedents is made central, though, and the fact that Trachimbrod has been obliterated from the map does not stop Jonathan’s narrative from continuing. Instead, he looks back to the past and re-imagines and recreates a history of the shtetl that acts as a form of commemoration.
It is also significant that the only living reminder of the place is embodied in the presence of Lista and the items that she has accumulated from the ground. She is now Trachimbrod.
3. Analyze the structure of the narrative and explain how it holds together.
The structure is at first glance somewhat fragmented as it is comprised of the separate narrations of Jonathan and Alex, and of letters from Alex to Jonathan that are set in the near present after their trip to Trachimbrod. Finally, there is also a letter from Alex’s grandfather to Jonathan, and Alex has translated this.
These separate entries that either look back to the distant past or to more recent events are unified by both geography and family. Trachimbrod and, to a lesser extent, Kolki give the separate narratives a focus as Jonathan describes events that happened here in the 18th, 19th and 20th century and in the present he, Alex and Alex’s grandfather take an odyssey to this area.
The events of Jonathan’s story are also made relevant with the focus he places on his ancestors. References to his family tree are a recurring feature of this novel, and in so doing he highlights the commemorative aspect of the novel as a whole. Alex’s narrative is made to run parallel when it becomes evident that his grandfather was also from this area, and so his past is also embroiled in the Nazi invasion in the Second World War.
4. Discuss the depiction of anti-semitism in this work and consider how the holocaust is portrayed.
Depictions of anti-semitism run through the novel and are made explicit when Jonathan explains to Alex that gentile Ukrainians and Poles were feared by the Jewish people of the area at the time of the Second World War. It is not explained further, but this is an unspoken reference to the pogroms that have occurred in the region over the centuries and, of course, before the Nazis came to power and later invaded this country.
In the early stages of the novel, and before Alex’s grandfather explains his friendship and betrayal of Herschel, it is implied that he too is anti-semitic. It is not until they return from visiting Lista and the area where Trachimbrod once stood that Alex’s grandfather rebukes the waitress for being derogatory about Jonathan being Jewish.
Because the focus remains throughout on the shtetl life of Trachimbrod (and Kolki is occasionally referenced), the massive scale of the Holocaust is barely broached. Instead, Foer uses the microscale of the village to depict the horrors and carnage inflicted on those that did not belong to the so-called master race.
5. Consider the ethical difficulties surrounding the use of postmodernism. Bear in mind how postmodernism blurs the distinction between truth and fiction.
Postmodernism is a complex movement that highlights the difficulty in establishing absolute truth. Its uneasiness with purported certainties was influenced by the aftermath of the Second World War, where genocide reached new levels with the use of technology and humanity appeared to be at best fragmented and at worse an optimistic invention.
It is of interest, then, that Foer employs postmodern techniques here, such as playing with the readers’ sense of what is fact and what is fiction, by inserting, for example, a character that shares his name and some similarities with his background. He draws on the truth of the Holocaust and the history of anti-semitism and demonstrates how it is ethically possible to use fiction to discuss a factual occurrence.
It should be highlighted, however, that because of the specific nature of this work and because of the continuing anti-semitic denial of the Holocaust in far-right groups, some may regard the use of overt self-conscious literary tricks as at least naïve and possibly dangerous.