Jonathan Safran Foer, Eastern Europe, and Me

I’ve always privileged time for writing over time for reading, so I was late coming to Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.  I’d already been working on A Long, Long Time Ago on and off for over ten years … Read More

By / September 23, 2009

I’ve always privileged time for writing over time for reading, so I was late coming to Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.  I’d already been working on A Long, Long Time Ago on and off for over ten years by that point, but ironically, it was only after I started workshopping and publishing a series of stories set in Moscow that people started telling me, "You’ve got to read this book."

Now, I tend to read only for daily sustenance, without necessarily dwelling on the individual books, but I definitely remember reading that book.  It was the summer of 2005, and I took it along with me on a trip to Poland, the first leg of which was a few days in the Tatra Mountains with my friend Anna (who inspired the character of Irena in A Long, Long Time Ago).  I started reading it on the long bus ride, and laughed so often through the first chapter that I tried to translate it for Anna into Polish.  That night, we were staying in a one-room cabin, but I was so restless (or maybe jet-lagged) that I took the book into the bathroom and shut the door so Anna wouldn’t be woken by the light.  I thought I would read one more chapter to put myself to sleep.  Maybe two.  At five in the morning, I was still sitting on the floor of that bathroom, finishing the last page. Now that A Long, Long Time Ago is out, a few people (including whoever wrote the jacket copy) have said my book reminds them of Foer’s.  Personally, I think Foer is a lot more adventurous in his experimentation with voice and structure, the way he loops back and forth in time, overlapping reality and magical realism.  In fact, these days I use his writing as an example for my students of the possibilities of fiction.  I think of my style as more straight-forward, old-fashioned storytelling, and I think I tend to visualize events in discrete scenes with clean edges.   As for the material, we’re definitely both pulling from the same realm.  World War II and the 90s were the crucial turning points of the 20th Century for both Poland and Western Ukraine, and it would be hard to write a book about either place without including these two time periods.  Also, L’viv/L’wów and Krakow share similar culture and aesthetics, and a common past.  (At several points in their history, modern Ukraine and Poland were joined, or at least jointly occupied by a third country.)  In both cities, Austro-Hungarian facades stand shoulder-to-shoulder with well-intentioned Soviet monstrosities, and the hippest cafés are adorned with collections of old clocks, sewing machines and school desks, a style that can perhaps best be described as "ironic attic chic."   The rural areas are nearly identical as well.  Villages with names like "Cold Water" and "Squirrel" seem straight out of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jerzy Kosi?ski.  A few years ago, on a road/cowpath-trip around Bieszczady (in Eastern Poland) with my friend Anita (whose younger self inspired the character of Magda), I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was driving through the pages of a storybook, as if at any moment, we might catch a glimpse of Baba Yaga’s chicken-feet house or be stopped by a talking fox.   And just as the mythical and the real coexist, so do the present and the past.  In conversations, people talk about the war as if it were yesterday, and the most hotly debated controversies usually have to do with things that happened several generations before.  Finally, after a long and often shared history of invasion, I think Jews and non-Jews from both countries wield a dark sense of humor as an antidote to suffering.   Two summers ago, after living in and traveling to Poland for fifteen years, I finally crossed the border to Ukraine.  I spent a month volunteering in a village near the western border, which turned out to be not far from where my father’s family is from, and probably not far from the character Jonathan Safran Foer’s travels.  When I arrived, I have to say, I was a little disappointed that Alex and Sammy Davis Junior Junior were not waiting in a Lada to pick me up.  And this is probably the greatest testament to Everything Is Illuminated, that Foer, in such a short time was able to absorb and capture that singular atmosphere that I still find difficult to articulate, and create characters that, two years later, felt as if they could come alive and meet me at the train station.  I can only hope that my book will stick with its readers long enough for them to see Poland for themselves.

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