Writing Everything Is Illuminated took courage. I’ve read that your marvel of a novel is a result of research you did on your grandfather’s origin in and escape from a Jewish Ukrainian village depopulated by the Nazis and further destroyed by partisans. It took guts for you to visit the scene of that bloodbath, to reimagine your grandfather and his life before the bloodletting, to make him and his doomed village live again for new generations.
I don’t remember my parents ever telling me about the Holocaust, but I’m sure they tried to explain it to me. Permanently scarred by the seemingly inexplicable shooting of Bambi’s mom, I probably was too afraid to fathom such a thing as genocide let alone to register and remember my parents’ explanation. Even now, I can’t imagine how my grandkids will take it when they learn that there’s more to Jewish history than matzoh, menorahs, and mitzvahs. In the small attic over the garage of our condo is a box of family photos, letters, and mementos, tangible testimony to the stories I didn’t want to listen to when I was growing up. I’ve schlepped this box around the country for two decades waiting until I feel brave enough to open it.
Meanwhile I think about your quest and the moving novel you wrote about it. In Everything Is Illuminated you juxtapose the horrific with the hilarious. Much of the book’s humor derives from Alex Perchov, the Ukrainian translator who narrates part of your story. His delightfully discombobulated English idioms tickled me, and his perspective ─adolescent, Ukrainian, and gentile─ intensifies the horror of genocide by personalizing it. But Alex is more than a jokey foil who makes the bitter pill of Nazism easier for the reader to swallow. The teenage translator makes a few discoveries about his own ancestors and the stain mass murder leaves even in the minds of those forced to facilitate it.
I too needed a fictional translator of a language I don’t speak, read, or write. When I read Everything Is Illuminated, I was beginning research on a mystery set in Seattle’s Jewish community during the Gold Rush and in 1965. My story features a young Ukrainian woman’s diary written in Yiddish during the Nineteenth Century and translated in 1965 in Seattle. Inspired by Alex and my own ignorance of Yiddish, I made my translator an educated and assimilated Jewish housewife. Rachel Mazursky sees it as her mission to Anglicize the Yiddish scrawl of a semi literate immigrant girl so it will be easily intelligible to nonYiddish speakers. To do this she translates the diary into the unaccented Standard English she’s carefully cultivated and so makes the diary accessible and the diarist credible.
I’m also intrigued by your novel’s “hero,” a young American writer bearing your name. Last summer against the advice of my writing group, I began working on a mystery featuring a fictional writer named Jane Isenberg. Your deft handling of the writer as character will help me as I struggle to weave my own namesake into that story effectively. If I succeed, the resulting novel will be part murder she wrote and part how the hell she wrote it.
Another thing I admire about your book is that you don’t “write down” to some imaginary reader too simple, busy, or lazy to follow a story told in several voices, idioms, and time frames. On the front jacket of the hard cover edition, Nathan Englander calls Everything Is Illuminated “intricate in structure,” and he’s right. That intricacy suits the complexity of the tale you tell and compliments the readers you tell it to by assuming that we can follow it. Bravo!
Please write another novel soon. Meanwhile, thanks for this one.