Comedy and pathos are braided together with extraordinary skill in a haunting debut, a tale that depicts, with riveting intensity and originality, a young Jewish American writer’s search for his family’s European roots.
Three stories are told therein: that of 20-year-old college student Jonathan Safran Foer’s journey (in 1997) to the Ukraine in search of “Augustine,” the woman rumored to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis; Jonathan’s novel-in-progress, a fictional history of Trachimbrod, the Polish shtetl where his ancestors settled in the late 18th century; and letters written to Foer by his Ukrainian guide and translator Alex Perchov, an imperturbable Americanophile who boasts that he’s “fluid” in English (in fact, he mangles it as memorably as Mrs. Malaprop) and blithely rearranges all his employer’s plans. The seriocomic, partly surreal picture of life in Trachimbrod begins in fine magical-realist form with the story of a newborn baby who inexplicably survives when her father’s wagon tumbles into the Brod River (for which she’ll be named) and he drowns. Thereafter, Foer keeps the reader both hooked and pleasingly disoriented, as the narrative careens between Jonathan’s sedulous exploration of “the dream that we are our fathers” and Alex’s ingenuous accounts of their travels, undertaken in the company of his bilious Grandfather and an amorous canine bitch called Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. The aged Augustine is (or perhaps is not) found, horrific tales of Nazi atrocities and of a bitter legacy of apostasy, betrayal, and guilt gradually unfold—and “illumination”—is ironically achieved, as these several stories fuse together. Summary would mislead, as interlocking revelations are the story’s core: suffice it to say that at its overpowering climax, the river where it all began “speaks”—before another voice adds an even more passionate, plaintive coda.
Beauty from ashes. And a vibrant response to Jonathan’s grim aphorism “The novel is the art form that burns most easily.” Not this novel.