Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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February 2003

Dark Pages

Two contrasting tales of suffering

Everything is Illuminated****
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Hamish Hamilton, 2002

In this inventive and unusual novel three narrative strands intertwine to create a complex, beautiful whole. First there is the story of Trachimbrod, the Ukrainian village in which the author’s grandfather grew up. Tracing its history from 1791 to its annihilation by the Nazis in 1941, Foer spins a lyrical tale of a community that defies the limits of reality while being utterly believable. Indebted to both Jewish literature and magic realism, Foer’s Trachimbrod is a place of wondrous events peopled by eccentric characters. Even the most flawed of them are made lovable under Foer’s hand. This tale is interspersed with the story of Foer’s journey to the Ukraine in search of what—and who—survives of Trachimbrod. The narrator here is Alex, a young Ukrainian who acts as Foer’s guide and translator, together with his grandfather as driver. Foer must have worn out his thesaurus composing Alex’s gloriously inaccurate English, brimming with personality. Finally, we have Alex’s letters to Foer, commenting on the latest installments in both stories, and gradually revealing the reality behind his posturing narrative. The three-stranded structure is audacious, but succeeds, largely thanks to Alex, who is such a convincing persona that it seems as though the author himself really has contributed only part of the book. Foer leaves us wondering how much of this story is based on fact, and how much is his own invention.

Foer draws us into the book with humor—Alex’s opening chapter is hilarious. But while the book retains its warmth and humanity throughout, the comedy diminishes as Trachimbrod approaches its fate with horrible inevitability, and Alex comes closer to the disturbing truth of his grandfather’s life. We may shy away from reading yet another grueling account of the Holocaust, but Foer brings us to it by a route that is well worth the journey, and which reminds us again of why it is necessary to remember. As Foer wearily relates, the genocide of Jewish shtetls was a reality repeated hundreds of times across the Ukraine and Poland. Everything is Illuminated continues to grow in the mind even after one reaches the end. It is creative, distinctive, subtle, funny, tragic and humane.

Year of Wonders**
by Geraldine Brooks
Fourth Estate, 2001

Year of Wonders also relates the story of the decimation of a close-knit community, though it is very different in tone from Foer’s book. Set in the Peak District of England in 1665–66, and based on a factual case, it is the story of a small mining village that is struck by the bubonic plague and elects to isolate itself from the outside world in a bid to contain the infection. The novel is narrated by Anna, a young widowed mother, who is the servant of the local rector. As Anna relates the relentless advance of the Black Death through her community, she also exposes its social repercussions. At the same time, Anna herself slowly blossoms under the care and tutelage of the rector’s wife, Elinor, and, like the lead ore on which the village depends, becomes tempered and refined by the fire of suffering and the responsibilities placed on her shoulders.

Unlike Foer, Brooks satisfies the reader’s curiosity by providing an after-word with some information about the facts from which she drew her story. Her meticulous research is evident throughout the novel, but occasionally one feels that Brooks’ eagerness to incorporate all her findings compromises the book. Dialogues are weighed down with the burden of explication, and the narrative becomes congested as she tries not to miss a single anecdote. The story moves, sometimes jerkily, from one incident to another, encompassing the whole gamut of experiences of and reactions to the plague. The villagers witness witch-hunts and flagellants, brutal barber-surgeons and gentle herbalists, ministering angels and evil-doers who exploit the desperation of the stricken village. Yet despite the litany of miseries, we are seldom touched by these people’s plight. Although she tries to bring complexity and depth to her work, Brooks’ characters seem familiar types, her storyline is often predictable and her writing is unremarkable. Her attempts to give Anna’s voice the inflections of the place and time of the setting do not read comfortably. These shortcomings, however, are a frustration only because one feels that this could have been a far better book. Year of Wonders is easy and enjoyable reading, and is fascinating both in its historical detail and in the questions it asks concerning human behavior under extreme conditions. It is a shame that it is rather pedestrian in its execution.

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