Academic journal article Shofar

Almost Friends: Post-Holocaust Comedy, Tragedy, and Friendship in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated

Academic journal article Shofar

Almost Friends: Post-Holocaust Comedy, Tragedy, and Friendship in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated

Article excerpt

Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, Everything is Illuminated, addresses the concern of children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators with the possibility of reconciliation and how it relates to Holocaust memory. Through the use of characters that are grandchildren of survivors and perpetrators, and by contrasting two entirely different approaches to memory, one tragic and the other comic, Foer brings out the quandary of post-Holocaust reconciliation. This essay examines the dynamic relationship between the two main characters, Alex, a grandchild of perpetrators, and Jonathan, a grandchild of survivors, and their modes of remembering that vie with each other to the very end of the novel. The tension between them is underscored by Alex's desire to win Jonathan's friendship. Jonathan's ultimate refusal of friendship and reconciliation is examined in relation to Holocaust memory and the meaning of Holocaust representation, which, for Foer, should resist not only comedy but also full reconciliation.

Everything is Illuminated1 by Jonathan Safran Foer is an innovative postHolocaust novel. While like many post-Holocaust novels it is concerned with the relationship of writing to memory, it is not only interested in the perennial question posed "after Auschwitz" as to whether one can respond to the atrocities of the Holocaust through writing or whether one should remain silent. Rather, it also touches on how, in the context of contemporary post-Holocaust literature and history, writing and memory must deal with the topic of reconciliation between Jews and non-Jews of the second and third generation post-Holocaust. In Everything is Illuminated, this is specifically a question of friendship and writing. The two are intertwined: friendship is not sought after through normal channels; it is arrived at, or thwarted, through the trickery of writing. The dialogue between the two main characters illustrates this situation: each is trying to trick the other into admitting or seeing something that he doesn't want to see or admit. However, as their differing accounts, fictions, and letters make clear, one is interested in friendship whereas the other is not; one wants to remember and forgive, whereas the other seeks neither friendship nor forgiveness. Given this basic dichotomy, and as this is a novel dealing with the Holocaust, then, there is a struggle between comic and tragic modes of literary representation, the one bespeaking reconciliation, and the other its opposite, irreconcilable difference. The disparity between the two main characters' novels, identities, and, most important, their histories is delineated through this "written" and "real" struggle, a struggle which is especially significant because they come from different sides of the Holocaust divide: one is the grandchild of survivors; the other is the grandchild of the perpetrators. The outcome of this struggle has implications for anyone interested in how one represents the Holocaust, not to mention the question of reconciliation, both of which are becoming more of a concern as, with time, our distance from the Holocaust increases.

A Comic Start

Broadly stated, Foer's novel begins with a contemporary blend of the comic mode and one of its derivations, the quest Romance. According to Northrop Frye, the comic mode often presents a hero who is pitted against a villain or antagonist; in the end, the villain is either banished or transformed by the actions of the hero.2 The quest Romance draws on this mode, but it commonly includes the hero, his antagonist, and others, who travel to find a lost object and who, in the process, transform the land, which has become depleted, back to its original splendor. In some recent (and not so recent) versions of the quest Romance, such as The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, the journey brings people from different social classes or identities together as the adventure progresses. In fact, it often consists of people who are incredibly different, even antagonistic, who during the journey undergo a transformation and become friends. …

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