Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does.
It is said that the Messiah will come at the end of the world."
“But it was not the end of the world,” Grandfather said.
“It was. He just did not come.”
“Why did he not come?”
“This was the lesson we learned from everything that happened—there is no God. It took all of the hidden faces for Him to prove this to us.”
“What if it was a challenge of your faith?” I said
“I could not believe in a God that would challenge faith like this.”
“What if it was not in his power?”
“I could not believe in a God that could not stop what happened.”
“What if it was man and not God that did all of this?”
“I do not believe in man, either.
The prehistoric ant in Yankel’s ring, which had lain motionless in the honey-colored amber since long before Noah hammered the first plank, hid its head between its many legs, in shame.
Jonathan Safran Foer on the idea for Everything is Illuminated
How did the idea for the book originate?
When I was young, I would often spend Friday nights at my grandmother’s house. On the way in, she would lift me from the ground with one of her wonderful and terrifying hugs. And on the way out the next afternoon, I was again lifted into the air with her love. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was also weighing me.
Being a survivor of World War II, being someone who spent years - approximately the years I am now experiencing - scrounging for food while traversing Europe barefoot, she is acutely, desperately aware of weights: of bodies, of presences, of things that do and don’t exist. And it has always been with measuring - the distances between what is felt and said, the lightness of love, the heft of showing love - that I have connected with her. My writing, I have begun to understand - I am learning anew with each newly written word - springs from the same need to measure.
I did not intend to write Everything Is Illuminated. I intended to chronicle, in strictly nonfictional terms, a trip that I made to Ukraine as a 22-year-old. Armed with a photograph of the woman who, I was told, had saved my grandfather from the Nazis, I embarked on a journey to Trachimbrod, the shtetl of my family’s origins. The comedy of errors lasted five days. I found nothing but nothing, and in that nothing - a landscape of completely realized absence - nothing was to be found. Because I didn’t tell my grandmother about the trip - she would never have let me go - I didn’t know what questions to ask, or whom to ask, or the necessary names of people, places, and things. The nothing came as much from me as from what I encountered. I returned to Prague, where I had planned to write the story of what had happened.
But what had happened? It took me a week to finish the first sentence. In the remaining month, I wrote 280 pages. What made beginning so difficult, and the remainder so seemingly automatic, was imagination - the initial problem, and ultimate liberation, of imagining. My mind wanted to wander, to invent, to use what I had seen as a canvas, rather than the paints. But, I wondered, is the Holocaust exactly that which cannot be imagined? What are one’s responsibilities to “the truth” of a story, and what is “the truth”? Can historical accuracy be replaced with imaginative accuracy? The eye with the mind’s eye?
The novel’s two voices - one “realistic,” the other “folkloric” - and their movement toward each other, has to do with this problem of imagination. The Holocaust presents a real moral quandary for the artist. Is one allowed to be funny? Is one allowed to attempt verisimilitude? To forgo it? What are the moral implications of quaintness? Of wit? Of sentimentality? What, if anything, is untouchable?
With the two very different voices, I attempted to show the rift that I experienced when trying to imagine the book. (It is the most explicit of many rifts in the book.) And with their development toward each other, I attempted to heal the rift, or wound.
Everything Is Illuminated proposes the possibility of a responsible duality, of “did and didn’t,” of things being one way and also the opposite way. Rather than aligning itself with either “how things were” or “how things could have been,” the novel measures the difference between the two, and by so doing, attempts to reflect the way things feel. Did you ever find the woman who apparently saved your grandfather from the Nazis? I wasn’t even close to finding her. The trip was so ill conceived, so poorly planned, so without the research that would have been necessary to have had any hope of accomplishing what I thought was my purpose - finding Augustine - that I never had a chance.
But in retrospect, I’m not sure that the purpose was to find her. I’m not even sure I wanted to find her. I was twenty when I made the trip - an unobservant Jew, with no felt connection to, or great interest in, my past. I kept an ironic distance from religion, and was skeptical of anything described as “Jewish.”
And yet, my writing - what little I did then - began to take on a Jewish sensibility, if not content. To my surprise, I started asking genealogical questions of my mother, and sending Amazon.com workers to the darkest recesses of the warehouse for titles like Shtetl Finder Gazeteer, by Chester G. Cohen. (Chester G. Cohen?) I was a closeted Jew.
After 20 years of life, the feelings and facts had begun to diverge. I spent my time and energy on activities I didn’t think I cared about. There was a split - a strange and exhilarating split - between the Jonathan that thought (secular), and the Jonathan that did (Jewish). Because my trip to Ukraine came at the beginning of this fracture - before I could appreciate the coexistence of my halves - I was not yet ready to want to find Augustine. I jeopardized my trip by refusing to prepare for it.
Thankfully. The complete absence that I found in Ukraine gave my imagination total freedom. The novel wouldn’t have been possible had my search been that other kind of success.