Jonathan Safran Foer's wildly successful first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, is told in two voices. The first is that of a young American named Jonathan Safran Foer, "our hero," a secular and assimilated Jew, who takes a hurried trip to Ukraine to try to find the shtetl where his family lived before World War II. He has the name of a village and a photograph of the young woman who, he has been told, saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
While looking for the village, he realizes that he will probably have to create it, and the details of his heritage, from his own imagination. What he comes up with falls into some predictable patterns, part Chagall and part Fiddler on the Roof — the only framework that an unprepared young American might be expected to possess.
The novel's second voice makes the novel, providing it with almost all its humor and originality. Alexander Perchov is the Ukrainian translator "Foer" hires to take him around the countryside in his quixotic search for the destroyed shtetl. At first Alex comes across as a playboy and wannabe American who has learned his English from popular culture and a bad thesaurus. The result is a hilarious send-up of what might be spoken by an officious foreign guide, although I suspect that no one in the world has ever spoken like this. Here is his opening:
My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. My mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me! because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency. . . .
If that sounds irritating, I urge you to stick with it. Alex grows into one of the most lovable fictional characters I've come across in a long time. And the brilliance of Foer's achievement — and evidence of the kind of generosity that is the real test of a novelist — is that over the course of the novel Alex moves from buffoon to wise man. He even becomes a better writer than the character named after the novelist, one with a better sense of form and craft and a more interesting prose style. At some point, I guarantee you, between the laughter and the tears Alex provides, you will realize that you are in the presence of a real novelist who is likely to be with us for a long time.
Jonathan Safran Foer reads from Everything Is Illuminated at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Tuesday, April 29.