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EDITIONS
 Friday, 7 June, 2002, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Everything is Illuminated
A daring comic novel set in the Ukraine by 24-year-old New Yorker Jonathan Safran Foer.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)


MARK LAWSON:
Tina Brown, he takes a lot of risks, a book by a 24-year-old author. A character with his name in it. It approaches the Holocaust through comedy. It's very largely written in very bad English. Does he get away with it?

TINA BROWN:
Totally. When I read the reviews of it, my heart sank. I thought, "I am going to hate this book about Jewish self-realisation."

It's been a vein of literature that's been adequately covered before by writers like Roth and Bellow, but what he has done by adding the character of the narrator and talking in this hilariously incorrect English, which never gets tiresome, he pulls it off brilliantly - he has really invented the American just before he becomes one.

He is the immigrant who isn't yet an American, at the moment when he is travelling towards that experience. It's brilliant and fresh.

MARK LAWSON:
I thought he had a mature ear for what the reader could stand. Just when you need the English to start getting better, it does?

ROSIE BOYCOTT:
Yes. His sense of timing is awesome. He is writing effectively four books.

There are the letters, the actual narrative when they are going to the Ukraine to look for the grandfather in the village, and then these wonderful dialogues that he has in this crazy English. He takes his foot off the gas pedal or puts it on at the right moment.

This book is very funny, and on one level quite joky, then suddenly it hits you through the heart with the punch of what happened in this village they are looking for.

It is incredibly moving, and you are then captured by this book and the characters in this book. You like them and you want them to win. This book is awesome. The one thing I hate is for some reason they have the cover one way and then the other way.

MARK LAWSON:
It's the kinds of print that's hard to read.

ROSIE BOYCOTT:
You look at this and think, "This is going to be ghastly" and in fact it's wonderful. I wish they could reprint it.

MARK LAWSON:
Tom, what do you think?

TOM PAULIN:
It's an extraordinary book. It owes a lot to a wonderful book by Dan Jacobson, Heshal's Kingdom, about a character going to Lithuania, where his ancestors fled from before the Holocaust.

The Ukrainian English episodes are absolutely brilliant. This is English which is kind of wrecked but recognisable, like watching somebody sort of jump-start a Lada. It's fantastically funny.

Then everything is like Shegal, visionary, a great deal of wishful thinking, almost no mention of the pogroms until you get to the arrival of the Nazis. It's a very extraordinary book.

MARK LAWSON:
Very high praise so far, as there has been in America, but it's a fantastically audacious undertaking.

There is slapstick. The driver when he turns up in the Ukraine is blind, and you go from slapstick to historical tragedy. Does it work?

IAN RANKIN:
I hate to put a slight spanner in the works. I don't think it does work quite as seamlessly as we seem to be saying.

He has created a character Alex who is such a tremendous, humorous character. It's a wonderfully humorous creation, and everything which isn't from Alex's point of view somehow falls away and I was desperate to get back to Alex and contemporary again.

TOM PAULIN:
But it does go on too much. There is too much sex.

ROSIE BOYCOTT:
There is very little sex.

IAN RANKIN:
I kept writing names down, all the way round, but you need to have people that you are learning from.

But I did feel that the Jonathan Safron Foer character who was writing these pieces, you were saying, "I want to get back to the Alex character", who will then undermine everything you say, so he was pre-empting criticism which was interesting, but a bit of a cheat.

MARK LAWSON:
If you have a high framing device, such as this bad translation, it makes you impatient to get back to that?

ROSIE BOYCOTT:
Yes, but the sections are small. I never found at any point that I thought it was going too slowly. He paced it extraordinarily. It's like four books that somehow someone shuffled, but I think shuffled immaculately.

You are in and out of feeling and humour. That wonderful dog, Sammy Davis junior, the only guy with a blind guide dog, and he falls in love with the thing and he's hilarious and loveable too.

MARK LAWSON:
He's taking on American independent cinema because of these switches of tones.

TINA BROWN:
It is very cinematic in that sense, and he has been influenced by the cinema. Like Rosie, I wasn't bored at all by the other story of the stetl.

I found just when I was getting irritated by the translator, I switched back into something with a lot more heart and texture. I sometimes felt irritated about leaving that story.

TOM PAULIN:
The thing about the translator is he is so anxious with the anti-Semitic grandfather in the background, and that nervousness running through it and him wanting to go to America.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Panel
18 Apr 02 | Panel
30 May 02 | Panel
18 Apr 02 | Panel
30 May 02 | Panel

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