Essentially we’ve got two narratives here and three narrators. We’ve got two narrators telling the same story and another narrator writing a history. We’ve got magical realism, we’ve got the author himself writing a fictitious novel while also taking a backseat role in his own novel, we’ve got an unreliable narrator who doubles as a literary critic, we’ve got a novel within a novel within a novel, we’ve got a detective story and we’ve got a road novel. So, an ambitious venture.
The plot: a young American called Jonathan Safran Foer travels to the Ukraine with the photograph of the woman believed to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis and who he wants to find. He employs as guides and translators a supposedly blind ancient chauffeur with his guide-dog, and the driver’s grandson, Alex, the translator. The village of Trachimbrod is their destination. So what we get is a magic realism history of Trachimbrod in the form of a novel Foer is writing, dating from 1791 to the arrival of the Nazis in 1941; an account of the road trip and letters from Alex to Jonathan about Foer’s novel and his own tribulations.
The Alex sections are brilliant. His second language English is high trapeze crazy and often laugh-out-loud funny thanks to his relentless use of a thesaurus to poeticise his vocabulary. (“”I fatigued the thesaurus you presented me, as you counseled me to, when my words appeared petite, or not befitting.”) But it isn’t just a cheap comic trick and Alex soon becomes not only the most compelling character in the novel but also the most admirable. The history of Trachimbrond unfortunately is hit and miss. Foer letting his imaginative vitality and perhaps his vanity get the better of him. Because sometimes Foer just isn’t as funny as he so obviously finds himself. And because sometimes Foer’s relentless wackiness plummets into whimsy. And because sometimes his determination to create adorable characters waters down into the sentimentality he struggles so hard to avoid.