Guest post by Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed.
This semester the Ukrainian Homelands series includes Everything is Illuminated (2005), based on the novel of the same name written by the American writer Jonathan Safran Foer. Directed by Liev Schreiber, this film—which bridges at least five cultural dimensions (American, Jewish, Ukrainian, Russian, and German)—narrates the story of the Jewish American traveler Jonathan Foer, who undertakes a trip from the USA to Ukraine to find a woman who saved his grandfather from being executed by the Nazis during World War II. Jonathan travels through Ukraine, mapping out new geographical experiences, as well as a new mental and imaginative space that appears to be marked with existential traumas. When an invisible bond with the stories of others is established, the individual’s life turns into a multivocal echo of generations: forgetting and remembering is a way to re-connect with self and others. Everything is Illuminated touches upon the delicate nature of memorial connections that develop and dissolve, revealing individual and generational traumas and illuminating possible roads to healing and recovery.
Everything is Illuminated covers about three centuries that involve a diversity of stories that mesh, combine, and intertwine. The story of a little shtetl Trachimbrod produces an intricate web of connections, which evolves through the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Transcending the boundaries of memory fragments, the individual is exposed to the constant flux of meanings, affects, and emotions. In Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan “forges identities” while reorganizing memory fragments and leaving the premises of chronologically defined and structured memory territory—memory is being and being is memory. The availability of multiple memory fragments signals the re-construction of Jonathan’s family story that appears to involve a complex web of interconnected components, which evoke, individually and collectively, memories and emotions, blending and mixing diverse spatial and temporal dimensions.
Upon his arrival to Ukraine, Jonathan meets his guide and translator Alexander (Alex) Perchov (nicknamed Shapka), accompanied by his eccentric grandfather, who in spite of being half blind drives a car, and his dog Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior. Rather unexpectedly, Alex’s grandfather opens up “narrative wounds”: the recollections of WWII and the Nazi persecutions of the Jewish people discompose memory archives that seemed to be orderly structured and organized. The story revolves around painful memories. In Ukraine, Jonathan’s journey starts in Lviv. However, Lviv is only one point of a multi-routed journey, in which a diversity of destinations reflect rhizomatic memory and being.
Everything is Illuminated, which starts as a search for one’s own history that can be shared with others, gradually involves memory, which evokes, sustains, and erases emotional impulses. From this perspective, memory reveals its multiconnectedness, disclosing at the same time multiconnectedness of the inside and outside. Jonathan, while searching for the mysterious woman, eventually discovers a complex web of connections to the environments and lets memory fragments flow and drift. In other words, drifting memories that leave the confinements of clearly defined chronologies bring forth emotional links and bonds, producing space for remembering and forgiveness. Memory multilayeredness marks the individual’s fluidity that reveals the connectedness to “here and now” through a complex overlapping of the past, present, and future.
In Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan engages with memory, producing space in which the past, present, and future combine and collapse. The flashbacks into the history of shtetl Trachimbrod, the intrusion into a different culture which reveals otherness for the Jewish American, and hazy mirages of Alex’s and Jonathan’s friendship demonstrate multiple ways in which the individual connects and disconnects with history, his/her memory, and self.
Everything is Illuminated blends time and space to project possible scenarios for the characters. Meanwhile, memory fragments, stirred by the flashbacks into a distant past, are involved into the reconsideration not only of the past events but of the present and future as well. The individual appears to be caught up somewhere between spatial and temporal boundaries: the past exists in the present and the future is re-visited from the perspective of the revisited past and present. When seeking his past, Jonathan has to reconsider his present self—revisited past will bring forth revisited self that will explore temporal dimensions in a diversity of different ways.
The film’s characters are involved in the stories and memories that they share, voluntarily or involuntarily. The stories reveal connections that change the trajectories of lives and memories; the chronology is an illusion created to sustain certainty and avoid anxiety that not-knowing and not-remembering may involve. As Lyn Hejinian, American poet and essayist, once pointed out, “What follows a strict chronology has no memory.” The chaotic narrative structure of the film, which covers a few centuries, reveals the complexities of memory constructing and re-constructing, which reflects the palimpsest-like being. Accepting the unreliability of the known and unknown, letting memory fragments drift and flow, Everything is Illuminated makes a gesture toward exploring forgiveness, which surfaces when remembering and forgetting coalesce.
Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures. Her interests include memory studies, literature, and literary criticism.