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“What does it mean schmuck?” “Somone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Putz.” “What does that mean?” “It’s like schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Schmendrick.” “What does that mean?” “It’s also like schmuck.” “Do you know any words that are not like schmuck?” He pondered for a moment. “Shalom”, he said, “which is actually three words, but that’s Hebrew, not Yiddish. Everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.” I wondered, What is an Eskimo?
Five years ago I went to see Liev Schreiber’s excellent film adaptation of Safran Foer’s novel. If you have yet to see this movie, I would strongly recommend you get the dvd. It manages to be many things at once – comic, witty, stunningly shot and finally heart-breakingly sad. Everything Is Illuminated also introduced me to Eugene Hütz lead singer of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Hütz was hired by director Schreiber to consult on music for the film. Indeed his irrepressible song ‘Start Wearing Purple’, is featured on the soundtrack. However, so impressed was Schreiber by Hütz that he hired the singer to play the role of Alexander Perchov. Alex is one of many interpreters, or story tellers, challenged with unravelling the mystery presented to us by Safran-Foer in the novel.
‘My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.’ Immediately Safran-Foer throws us into the company of yet another unreliable narrator, one for whom English is not even a first language. Hired by a young man named Jonathan Safran-Foer to act as translator on his trip to the Ukraine, Alex regales us with his impressions of the curious American Jew. Why would anyone leave America to travel all the way out to Odessa, when everyone wants to travel in the opposite direction? Why would someone actually pay to do so? This strikes Alex as the act of a very stupid person.
The book acts as an investigation of Safran-Foer’s own family history, tracing the origins of a small community known as Trachimbrod and its fate during the events of World War II, as well as Alex’s growing awareness of how his family’s past is tied to the strange American’s. The two narrators of this tale are joined by Alex’s grandfather and his ‘Seeing Eye bitch’ Sammy Davies, Junior, Junior. Safran-Foer is of course deadly afraid of dogs, but their gruff driver insists upon her presence in the car as he is convinced he is blind. They travel out of Odessa across the Ukrainian countryside, but are unable to discover any clue as to the location of Trachimbrod. Everyone they speak seems either not to know, or strenuously insists that no such place ever existed. The three men and a dog continue until they find the one person willing to ‘illuminate’, what happened to the community of Jews that once lived at Trachimbrod, a secret that changes the lives of the three men forever.
Safran-Foer skips through time and memory lightly, hinting at the eventual reveal of the book, while also distracting us from the grim fate of Trachimbrod with the comic narration of Alex. There is much to laugh at in this book and even the family history of the Safran-Foers proves to be an absurdist account that is half cabbalist fugue, half preordained tragedy. When the truth finally is revealed, it is gruesome, tragic and powerfully captured. The jumps through history suddenly coalesce into a grand narrative that is part condemnation of the horrors of the Holocaust, part meditation on the role played by memory in Jewish culture.
The film made me cry and sure enough the book did also. This is self-aware writing that embraces post-modern tropes, but also manages to retain a heartfelt emotional core.
Originally I had intended to review something else, but this caught my attention. Read Comic In Public Day was on Sunday and rather unexpectedly, comics have entered the political arena in the States. Maryland Senator Nancy King issued a mailout to voters that seems to imply comics harm children’s education. Links for coverage can be found here and here, as well as a comment from King’s Democrat rival Saqib Ali.
Anyway, I chose this book to illustrate why this is an important medium and not shorthand for teen delinquency & illiteracy.
Writers Mike Raicht and Brian Smith have crafted a magical tale of toys coming to life to protect their owner from the malevolent Boogeyman. Charles Paul Wilson III provides the art and it is simply gorgeous. First to the story.
Set during the events of World War II, a young boy plays with his toys and waits for his dad to return from the conflict in Europe. One night he is awoken by the family dog, a small puppy, growling at a door standing ajar in his bedroom. Suddenly his teddy bear Max is flung across the floor by an invisible force and as the pup becomes increasingly anxious, black tendrils stretch out from the darkness of the closet and snatch the boy from his bed. After a moment the toys in the room all come to life. They know the Boogeyman is responsible for this attack on their owner. The Colonel asks for volunteers to accompany him into the Dark, the realm of the Boogeyman. Max the bear, a faceless Indian Princess, a jack-in-the-box Jester, a tin fairy named Harmony and Quackers the duck agree to volunteer for the mission. The boy’s piggybank has to be coaxed by the Colonel into joining the group also, as well as the eager pup Scout (whose presence the toys barely tolerate as he is not one of them). Together they step through the closet door, which shuts firmly behind them.
On the other side of the door, in the Dark itself, the toys find themselves transformed into living, breathing beings, stranded in a world filled with hostile subjects of the Boogeyman’s. The Colonel leads them in an assault against a waiting army of soldiers from different periods of history and they succeed in forcing their opponents to retreat. A group that numbers a giant bear, a mad axe-wielding Jester and an Indian Princess fed up to the teeth with being rescued the entire time, is a force to be reckoned with. Seeing this the Boogeyman attempts a different tactic. The heroes travel onward to the strange town of Hopskotch, not realizing that there is a traitor among them, slowly wearing down their resolve.
Raicht and Smith have crafted an endearing fable that at first glance resembles the Toy Story series, but proves to be a much darker tale. The heroes suffer loss and death shortly after becoming ‘real’ and the Boogeyman is a terrifying symbol of innocence corrupted made manifest. The toys themselves also develop alarming character traits when they cross over into the Dark. Max in particular is transformed from a cuddly teddy into a savage beast. Gruff and impatient, his desperate need to rescue his owner whom he has been with the longest proves to be a weakness that the villains easily exploit. The noble Colonel can easily be viewed as a symbol for the boy’s missing father, whose stoic bravery in the face of conflict represents a child’s understanding of the realities of war. Then there is Percy the pig(gybank) who is counting down the days till his owner smashes his body to recover the money he has been saving. In the Dark Percy is a real pig and his intelligence exposes him to doubts about the rescue they are attempting. My favourite of the bunch is the formerly faceless Princess of course, with the sinister Jester a close second, both interesting inversions of their toylike forms.
The art is wonderful. The sepia colourings throughout lend a nostalgic tone to the real world scenes. However, it is the splash-page revelation of the toys’ transformation, leaping into battle against impossible odds with limbs hacked at and torsos stabbed, that proves to be an astonishing moment. Wilson’s art transforms this book, like its toys heroes, into something strange and wonderful.
I’d read this in public every day!
Irena told me once that she went into the woods by herself with the dog to think. About literature and politics and I don’t know what all. And I felt secretly embarrassed when she told me that, because when I’m alone usually all I ever think about is girls, and I felt inferior compared to her.
Right now I am fascinated with the sudden interest in translated fiction from Europe and eastward towards the nations of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson got things started, but even before the English translation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there were books by the likes of Pelevin appearing in Waterstones.
What’s more we are in the enviable position to be able to enjoy works that were censored under Soviet rule, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only did the Russian novelist fall victim to censure, he even earned special attention from Stalin by demanding to be allowed defect if his book could not be published. Josef Škvorecký’s novel was also banned and this edition opens with an Author’s Preface were he pleads for understanding and clemency. It’s a strangely pathetic plea, defending the work while simultaneously apologizing for it. In the regard the events of the book seem prophetic.
Danny and his friends are waiting for the end of the war in the small Czech town of Kostelec. It is May 1945. Hitler is dead and the Germans are said to be retreating, with the Russian army on their tails and the western allied forces waiting in Berlin. Danny doesn’t care, he just wants to play jazz and sweet-talk some of the local girls. Of course he loves Irena most of all, but she is going out with Zdenek the thick-bodied Alpinist.
Of course, one thing that really impresses girls is a hero, so when the opportunity arrives to teach the defeated Nazis a lesson, Danny, Haryk, Benno and Lexa sign up to join the official paramilitary force. They are shocked when the town elders demand they hand over the weapons they had managed to scrounge during the war and then ordered to march around Kostelec unarmed. Quickly deciding this was nothing like the revolution promised, Danny tries to think of way to avoid further boredom. He concentrates on trying to woo Irena, even as the occupying German force becomes increasingly nervous, with the growing danger of a massacre caused by an angry local trying his luck robbing a submachine gun. Despite not seeming to care a whit for the course of the war, he seems to repeatedly find himself in the centre of events, attracting the anger of a frightened German soldier and even later becoming an unofficial translator and guide for bewildered prisoners of war escapees.
This is a blackly comic novel, with a wry note of suspicion towards authority. While Danny appears to care about nothing more than music, girls and American movies (nursing an enormous crush for Judy Garland), he is aware that all the folk of Kostelec are witnessing is a changing of the guard, despite the Soviets’ claims that they are a liberating force. Local boy Berty has even taken to photographing everything, with a view to selling the photos of the ‘revolution’, in years to come. There’s a significant scene between Danny and a soldier from Liverpool who asks if he would prefer if the British were in charge. Of course, he replies, but this is the situation.
Again and again the theme of the novel comes back to impotence. The title is inspired by the characters failing to live up to the heroic ideal of patriotic warriors repelling the invaders with guerrilla tactics and bravery. Yet Danny and his friends know that they are caught up in events they cannot control, any more than they can get a girl to notice them. In his head winning over Irena should be easily achieved by imitating the Hollywood lovers he is obsessed with, even affecting an American accent every now and then. It never seems to work out in real life though.
This story was written before the author was twenty-four years old. It is a young man’s book, but with an incisive degree of self-awareness and a mocking tone throughout. An excellent novel.