I first watched the film adaptation of Everything is Illuminated in early 2007 and found myself uncontrollably moved to tears. I’ve watched it twice more since that time, and each time I find myself in tears. That’s an unusual response for me. Like most men, I’ve cried during Ol’ Yeller, and not much else. Well, maybe a bit during Sense & Sensibility, but don’t tell my wife.
And so, I picked up the novel. The story is of a young Jewish man named Jonathan Safran Foer (also the name of the author) who travels to Ukraine to find Augustine, a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during World War II. He hires Sasha, a Ukrainian tour guide, and Alex, Sasha’s “blind” grandfather and driver. They drive around, Sasha makes some unintentionally hilarious observations, Jonathan discovers that vegetarianism is not an option, and they either do or do not discover the woman they are seeking (none of us are sure).
The quick reaction: it’s moving, it’s hilarious, and it’s “provoking of many rigid and premium cognitions.” (That’s a little in-joke for those who have read the book.) It also moved me to tears.
The long reaction:
The author arranges the novel around two narratives–a magic realist storyline detailing the history of a Ukrainian Jewish settlement from the late-18th through the mid-20th centuries, and the absurd-but-realistic storyline describing the present-day search. Foer (as a character in the second storyline) writes the first storyline. Sasha, his Ukrainian tour guide, writes the second in English that just misses the mark. And between these, we have some letters from Sasha to Jonathan discussing their joint attempt at telling the story.
Through these two narratives and the corresponding correspondence (I now get to check off an item on my wordplay task list!), several characters work and rework and re-rework the definition of love. Some quotes:
This is love, she thought, isn’t it? When you notice someone’s absence and hate that absence more than anything? More, even, than you love his presence? (p. 121)
He knew that I love you also means…I love you in a way that I love no one else, and never have loved anyone else, and never will love anyone else. He knew that it is, by love’s definition, impossible to love two people. (p. 170)
Every morning, she’d clean me of my excrement, bathe me, dress me, and see that my hair was combed like a sane man’s, even when it meant an elbow to the nose or a broken rib. She polished the blade. She wore my teeth marks on her body like other wives might wear jewelry….She did all of those things and so many more, things I would never tell anyone, and she never even loved me. Now that’s love. (p. 264)
Again and again, the characters seek to define love, and seek to express love. And again and again, the characters conclude that they don’t truly love their beloved. Twice, lovers each express their “un-love” for one another, and in both cases, neither lover is surprised. I suppose it’s difficult to truly love someone if love is doing horrible things for people you don’t care about.
Perhaps the most compelling comment on love is the following:
They reciprocated the great and saving lie—that our love for things is greater than our love for our love for things… (p. 83)
And it seems that this is the proposition on which the whole novel turns.
At another point, later in the novel, the author makes a similar claim about worship–that the supplicants worship their worship rather than the worshippee. The novel in toto treats memory in the same fashion–in its self-conscious rewriting of history, it remembers remembering more than simply remembering events. In all of those experiences that you and I might think of as “essential human experiences,” Foer asserts that we remain one step removed. We don’t love. We love our love. We don’t believe. We believe in our belief. We don’t fear. We fear our fear.
Maybe this is why this book remains so emotionally affecting–there is a deep, existential anxiety that pervades our society. Overwhelmed by a flood of winking cynicism, bouncing between insincere relationships, wrapped in necessary invulnerability, we remain anxious that we will never enjoy a true thought, a true emotion, a true relationship. That we will never know sincere joy. That we will never love. That we will go to our death as alone as we arrived at our birth–never having trusted ourselves nor having enjoyed the true trust of another. This is a great tragedy, and it terrifies us. We know at our core that we were made for true relationships, but we cannot take the one risk that such relationships require–absolute selflessness. Not self-conscious altruism, but actual forgetfulness of self. And so, we come to our ends as wholly selfish as we began, and as wholly alone. No one knows us, and we know no one. This should bring us to tears.
In the movie, this tragedy is illustrated by Grandfather Alex repeatedly staring at the waning moon. The viewer later discovers the memory that this moon evokes, and the realization comes–Grandfather Alex has never been honest with those closest to him. For decades, he has never put himself entirely aside and simply loved another. He has never entrusted himself to another. And the result of this isolation is devastating. It was at this point that I found myself moved to tears. Not even his death could have evoked a similar response.
In the novel, the reader discovers the same thing, through a draining but necessary “illumination.” Alex takes the opportunity to lay himself bare before Jonathan and Sasha, and his only hope is that in entrusting himself to them, they will offer him forgiveness for the way he has sinned against them both.
In both the novel and the film, redemption is available, though the shape of that redemption differs between the two.
The book and the movie are both remarkable, but the presence of quite a bit of objectionable content means that I cannot recommend the book.
In spite of this, I want to affirm that the author puts his finger on a critical truth–too many of us are in love with the idea of being in love, and too few of us actually love. We don’t have any reason to think that someone will accept us as we are and as we have been. I’m inclined to think that a relationship of true, honest love is impossible until one has experienced the freeing love of God, manifest to sinners in the death and resurrection of Christ. If we have entrusted ourselves to God and experienced his unconditional love and grace, then we have a stable confidence from which to enter into a similarly true relationships with other people.
Seeking to Love,