Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel ‘Everything is Illuminated’ is yet another artistic interpretation of reliving the memory of the Holocaust – which to younger generations of men and women over the world has moved into the domain of folklore and history, progressing from the living memory of people of yesteryears. In assessing the surrealistic component of his work, we would first define surrealism as an art form and how it has played an important role in modern literature and movies first. Although surrealism as a movement started in 1924, it still influences artists, writers and critics even to this day.
At its core, surrealism taps into our unconscious through powerful symbols and abstractions, and according to the author of the book “The Surrealist Manifesto” Andre Breton(1924), surrealist writers express the passage of actual functioning of thought rather than describing thought itself. The tool that Foer uses in his work is ‘automatic writing’ which is essentially a popular surrealist tool according to Breton, which implies writing without thinking. This aimed to break down the barriers between the conscious and subconscious, thus providing a clearer picture of the actual awareness and mental processes of the writer.
There are numerous elements of Foer’s work in ‘Everything is Illuminated’ which is unmistakably surrealistic, and exposes the automatic writing process that Foer employs. In a way this is a new angle way to explore the Holocaust as Alex Perchov, the naive Ukrainian translator writes letters to Foer in a stylized Russo-English tone that reads : “It is mammoth honor for me write for a writer, especially when he is American writer, like Ernest Hemingway”; or “It is bad and popular habit for people in Ukraine to take things without asking” are the norm.
” Interspersed with these letters are the fragments of the real novel by Foer which he exchanges with Alex the interpreter, which describes in a ‘real’ yet magical account of Foer’s imagined life in the Shetl, where his grandfather came from, before the Nazis destroyed it completely. An important surrealist theme is this interface between reality deconstructed through Jonathan Foer’s journey as he traces his family’s connections to Trachimbrod ( a fictional representation of the real town Tachenrod) between 1791 and 1942.
There are clearly absurd situations and unique personalities and fascinating philosophies depicted in the process, which bring out the intended surrealism. In Chapter two, ‘The Beginning of the world Never Comes”, like all traditional Jewish stories it opens with a conditional : “Trachim B’s double-axle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River.
” The wagon may or may not have belonged to Trachim, and in truth he may or may not have been killed. This implicit ambiguity and uncertainty is a dominant surreal element – nothing is ever sure when it comes to Trachimrod, and the legend surrounding Trachim who is the real source of the lore. But as a good story is better than no story at all, and “Everything is Illminated” explores the interface between fact and fiction all along, with the boundaries often merged.
To this end, it is a unique narrative art form applied to the pre-history of the Holocaust as someone from a succeeding generation explores its quasi-magical communal origins, now lost. Returning to the theme of automatic writing, much of Alex’s perspective as it is presented does not have any line breaks or any semblance of literary organization : “‘They burned the synagogue. ”They burned the synagogue. ‘ ‘That was the first thing they did.
‘ ‘That was first. ‘ ‘Then they made all of the men in lines'” (P. 185). While Alex is literally translating the old woman’s narrative about the Nazi atrocities, he gives us the surreal impression that he is not lifting his pen from paper as he records a continuous stream of thought. The repetitions reinforce the thought process turning gradually somber and dark, as the novel progresses from its earlier light-hearted beginnings.
Towards the end of the novel, it becomes an established theme as the thought process sounds incoherent at times depicting the grim reality of the situation. For instance, when the Nazis march through Kolki, Alex records : “It was not forever before he was the only Jew remaining outside of the synagogue the General was now in the second row and said to a man because he only asked men I do not know why who is a Jew and the man said they are all in the synagogue because he did not know Herschel or did not know that Herschel was a Jew… ” (Page 250).
Putting no punctuation in this section, as if to rush through the stream of thought is an attempt to get the reader to focus on the text, despite any obvious demarcation between the sentences, as a literary device to bring out the angst and anxiety in the Grandfather as he barely manages to move from one thought to another. The tragedy of the situation, as exemplified by this method of automatic writing, is very distinct from a comprehensively described historical narrative which has been the norm of many historical novels depicting the terror that the Nazis perpetrated.
As a surrealist literary tool, this is powerful in evoking subconscious patterns of the mind. Under pressure or fear, as our mind gets cluttered, it gets entwined with the deepest physiological motives of fight or flight – as the mind just processes the bare facts, repeats those which are essential to deconstruct the crucial elements that separate life and death, the bare essentials so to speak.
Even love is under strain under such circumstances, and the literary tool of automatic writing that Jonathan Foer uses does not stop at simply removing line breaks and punctuation, he even obliterates the spaces between the words, often repeating them in succession, to bring out the flow and rush of emotion and thoughts. Without stopping to think what he is writing, as if it is a work-in-progress, Foer also introduces the idea of temporality, or the passage of time in his writing.
This example of the Grandfather’s narrative brings out the idea of a powerful flow : “I looked at Grandmother and shekissedmeontheforehead and I kissedheronthemouth and our tearsmixedonourlips and then I kissedyourfather many times I secured him from Grandmother’s arms and Iheldhimwithmuchforce so much that he started crying I said I love you I love you I love you I love you I loveyou I loveyou I loveyou I loveyou Iloveyou… ” (Page 250).
The use of these new works, cluttered and jumbled, bring out the inherent tragedy of the situation powerfully, as the readers are almost compelled to think outside their normal sphere of reasoning as to why this cluttering has been left unedited in the book. This crazy, quilted patchwork of writing styles that Foer has created perfectly suits the backdrop of the Holocaust, and the use of words like “Iloveyou” and “tearsmixedonourlips” seem to express the sentiment that conventional use of English words is inadequate to express the pathos and poignancy of the moment.
The presentation of the text itself in “Everything is illuminated” is another example of surrealistic techniques used in the book. A vivid example is provided in the “Book of Antecedents”, where after the last entry on Brod’s list of 613 sadnesses (page 212), the text continues : “we are writing… we are writing …we are writing ” for a full one and a half pages. While critics may interpret this somewhat idiosyncratic use as monotonous text in many ways, there is a surrealist explanation that appears plausible.
Throughout the interplay of facts, myths and legends seen in “Everything is illuminated” this was one place in the novel where the reader is powerfully reminded that after all, this is a written piece of work, where writing can be a monotonous activity, when writers have to put pens on papers (or hammer at typewriter keyboards) as part of a daily routine to capture their thought flow. Artistically, this is the equivalent of a painter including a picture of his paintbrushes within a landscape or still portrait to convey the message that it should be interpreted as a work of art, as the artist’s own rendition of reality.
The use of periods to leave out large portions of text is used by Foer in other instances as well, notably towards the end, between the section describing Trachimday and the “dream of the end of the world”. (pg 272). This was celebration, unmitigated by imminent death.
They stayed Without actually describing the bombing of Trachimbrod, Foer powerfully describes the emptiness and tragedy of the impending bombing, as the residents prepared for it stoically, and when the bombing took place they fled the city. These long spaces are the surrealist equivalent of time being frozen, as thought flowed in slow motion.
Without adequately expressing the details of the bombing these mental spaces indicate Foer’s deliberate style of a work-in-progress, as if he intended to fill in these spaces later. In another sense, this surrealistic theme implies the overall mission of the story, as a few characters set out to discover something far bigger than themselves. This surrealist element of describing the function of thought as defined by Breton is evident through out the novel, often with the deliberate misuse of words, as is an artificially distorted ‘surrealist’ artwork aiming to describe the process rather than reaching literary perfection.
For instance, Alex, whose English is not very good confessedly has a thesaurus by his side when writing and picks out inappropriate word alternatives as evident form this line : I have girdled in the envelope the items you inquired, not withholding postcards of Lutsk, the census ledgers of the six villages from before the war, and the photographs you had me keep for cautious purposes… I must eat a slice of humble pie for what occurred to you on the train. I know how momentous the box was for you, for both of us, and how its ingredients were not exchangeable…. (Page 23)
The inept use of thesaurus-derived synonyms and clumsy phrases remain an important part of the book, as well as the film directed by Liev Schreiber (Carlson 2006) as Alex explains that his friends find his full name Alexander “more flaccid to utter”. Again in leaving Alex’s letters unedited, it is an attempt to depicts the process by which Alex himself matures throughout the book as a researcher and writer, as his initial efforts to prove that he is knowledgeable in English is a surrealistic statement about ‘setting’ out on the journey to self-discovery through learning.
As Alex best describes this process at the end “Everything is illuminated in the light of the past, which is inside us looking out,” (Carlson 2006) this book is about deconstructing the past using a surrealist technique.
Reference Breton, Andre (1924) Le Manifeste du Surrealisme. Translated to English in : Patrick Waldberg, Surrealism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), pp. 66-75. Carlson, Daniel (2006) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Decent. Pajiba 2006. Retrieved from the Internet on 15 March, 2008 from : http://www. pajiba. com/everything-is-illuminated. htm