I admit it, I’m totally fickle. I bought this book purely because I like the front cover. My local charity shop sells books for 20p so I can afford to do this and it’s something I’d recommend doing occasionally as you never know what gems you might find.
Straight away with this book I was sold. The opening chapter is narrated by Alex, a young Ukrainian who has been hired to translate for Jonathon Safran Foer, an American Jew. Jonathon has travelled to Ukraine to seek out Augustine, a woman who helped his grandfather escape the Nazis. Although the author himself features in the book, it is fictional. The book unravels in three strands – the first is Alex’s description of escorting ‘Jon fen’ around Ukraine, with his faux-blind grandfather as driver and stinking ‘seeing eye bitch’ Sammy Davis Junior Junior, in the search for Augustine.
The second is Alex’s letters, written to Jonathon at a later date, commenting and offering advice over Jonathon’s writing up of their Ukrainian adventures. The third strand begins in 1791 and tells the story of the fictional shtetl (Jewish town) of Trachimbrod, leading us through the centuries to Jonathon’s grandfather. I know it sounds confusing, and admittedly sometimes it is, but it really enhances the book to have these different elements woven together.
It’s made all the more quirky (a word which, I’m sure will turn some people off reading this) by the use of Alex’s broken English. Although his vocabulary improves throughout the book, we are clear throughout that this is not a native English-speaker narrating the story. Initially this is kind of sweet and endearing, but there are times when it feels forced. The only part told in native English is the story of Trachimbrod. The characters involved as we follow Jonathon’s ancestors are colourful, eccentric and comedic and the story becomes hyper real, almost magical. Amongst others, there’s Yankel D and his adopted daughter Brod, who describes her 613 types of sadness. There’s the Kolker who ends up with a circular saw in his head for the rest of his life as it’s too dangerous to remove it and there’s Safran, who’s whole life is determined by the fact of being born with teeth.
There’s a fair amount of tragedy involved here, throughout history and, naturally, once the Nazis get involved. There has been criticism of the books depiction of how Ukrainians treated the Jews. I can’t really comment on this because I don’t know the facts, but this is a novel and should be taken as such. Perhaps it’s irresponsible to inaccurately portray such a sensitive subject in a novel, but this is a fictionalized history of a fictionalized place.
My problem with this novel is that the story didn’t seem especially original. There’s romance, history, war, comedy etc. and the structure is certainly interesting, but no matter how charming the characters are, there was nothing page-turning about it. Perhaps I would feel differently if the ending had been better. It felt a little like ‘well, that’s enough story, time to quickly wrap it up now’ with lots of unanswered questions. There’s nothing wrong with this book, when taken apart and analysed I liked it all, there were even parts that I loved, but put all together, it just didn’t especially inspire me. I wish I could explain it better than that. Maybe it’s just too similar to other books I’ve read and loved, if I’d read them in a different order, I’d love this more. I can appreciate the appeal of this book definitely, and it’s not just the front cover. Give a go, I’d be interested to hear what you think…
“It [the trip] captured five very long hours. If you want to know why, it is because Grandfather is Grandfather first and a driver second. He made us lost often and became on his nerves. I had to translate his anger into useful information for the hero. “Fuck,” Grandfather said. I said, “He says that if you look at the statues, you can see that some no longer endure. Those are where Communist statues used to be.” “Fucking fuck, fuck!” Grandfather shouted. “Oh,” I said, “he wants you to know that that building, that building, and that building are all important.” “Why?” the hero inquired. “Fuck!” Grandfather said. “He cannot remember,” I said.”
If you liked reading about the founding of a town by vivid, semi magical characters you might like One Hundred Years Of Solitude
If you liked the way the vocabulary and grammar improved throughout you might like Push
If you like quirky tales from Ukraine you might like Death And The Penguin
If you like this author you might like Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close