A young Jewish-American writer journeys to the Ukraine to find out more about the life of his grandfather. Guided by Alex , an America-obsessed local, Jonathan ventures into the heartland of the Ukraine seeking to shed light on events that occurred to his grandfather during World War II. Joining Jonathan and Alex is Alex’s surly grandfather and a dog named Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.
The story is about Jonathan Safran Foer, curiously named the same as the actual author of the book . He is an aspiring writer in his early 20s who travels to Ukraine to try to find the small Jewish village of Trachimbrod where his grandfather grew up and to find the woman who helped him escape the Nazis during the war. He speaks no Ukrainian or Russian, and his only maps of the area are 60 years old, and so so he needs a translator and a driver and somehow happens upon Alex, who has the most wonderful and creative English, sounding like a thesaurus. Alexander is an Odessa native about his own age, and his blind grandfather, who acts as their driver (if you have read any modern Russian literature you will understand not to question this kind of thing) and their ‘seeing-eye’ bitch Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.
Half of the story is written by Alex, as letters to Jonathan. He writes in English in a broken idiolect that suggests computer translation gone awry His sections are humorous, and touching, as he takes side trips into the nature of friendship, grief and regret, among other things.
The other half is written by the fictional Jonathan, and covers the history of the village from the day it got its name in 1791 until its destruction by the Nazis in 1941, by following the exploits of his ancestors. All of these sections have a very surreal quality. They jump around in time, different eras have glimpses into the past and future.
It is a story about what happens when you put an American and an Eastern European born in the Soviet era, in the same room and try to make them explain to one another why the other one thinks the way they do.
The over arching story of the ancestors, how the village was created, up until the arrival of the German Nazis is poignant, if a bit surreal, and emotive. But we come to love Alex, who wants so desperately to go to America and be an accountant, and is so proud of his English, with his enormous vocabulary.
I admit to mashing together selections from other reviews because I have entered the Age of Unabashed Laziness. But I would have written every word had I felt up to it. Cross my heart and hope to die.
This was Foer’s first novel, written when he was 25. He later wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I commented on here.