This is a quite remarkable literary experience.
It’s kind of three books in one that overlap and interlink in ways that are often difficult to grasp and that come together in a strange and inexplicable way.
It does no justice to the novel, written at the turn of the millennium, to try to literally explain it. Indeed much of its joy is in deciphering it as you go along.
In turns horrifying and hilarious it tells the stories of a young American (and very Jewish) novelist visiting the Ukraine to trace the history of his ancestors as he writes their story, beginning in 1791, in the village of Trachimbrod – a Jewish settlement on the River Brod. The village plays host to so many inconceivable traditions, that are often ludicrous, that it becomes an entity and character all of its own.
The novelist, Jonathan (also the author) speaks no Ukranian and enlists a translator (Alex) whose grasp of English is learned through Thesauri which leads to the mangling of the English language (with so many words seemingly out of place, but after pondering on them are simply inappropriate synonyms for what he is trying to say) in a way that bestows much of the book’s humour.
Post-trip, the author and the translator communicate (we only see the letters of the translator, with amusing references to the return correspondence) as the translator writes his own (awful) novel about the trip and ‘critiques’ the efforts of Foer as he pieces together his, and Trachimbrod’s, history.
The stories are interlinked and culminate around a terrible Nazi atrocity that occurs at the end of WW2.
What Foer achieves in writing so badly, telling a story so ridiculous, but underpinned with holocaustal horror, is like nothing you will ever have read before. Think Monty Python meets Jonathan Littell (The Kindly Ones – reviewed here).
It’s unique and compelling and funny and savage all at once.
That said, it’s a difficult read.
I’m not sure I really fully unravelled it and the whole experience would probably benefit from a second reading. But it’s magical in many ways.
It’s one to read in only a few sittings with a real focus on it.
I fear I took too long to break it down. But if you have the patience and the time to commit to it I’d strongly recommend it.