I realised at some point halfway through the book that Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer had been occupying the same space in my head. It turns out that they are two distinct people. It’s the Jonathan and then the F thing that confused me which goes to show that my memory is more visual than aural. I’m going to be a great old lady.
I really liked this novel. The structure of the book made a point all by itself as disparate narratives were juxtaposed, their dialogue with one another becoming more and more apparent. It’s a book about remembering and interpreting, about how imagination can make life more beautiful and livable but at the same time denial can lead to unhelpful fantasies and an inability to move meaningfully forward as is potently symbolised by the Grandfather’s insistence on being blind.
I would say that the conclusion of the book reminds me of Paul Tillich’s definition of forgiveness as “remembering the past in order that it might be forgotten”. In the end, the Grandfather is able to at least face the past if not overcome it. The old lady of Trachimbrod “Not-Augustine” may not have been in denial and yet is stuck in remembrance. She significantly said there was imagination before the massacre but after it there was none. For the younger heroes however, their illumination leads to Alex being able to move away from fantasies and face his life more judiciously whilst his counterpart, Jonathan is able to reclaim some of the imagination Not-Augustine described as being lost and write a story of Trachimbrod full of the stuff and yet still truthful.
So, even as there are two stories unfolding in the book there are are also competing interpretive narratives – imaginative, sometimes fantastical episodes and perspectives are side by side with unflinching accounts of massacres and it is clear that both have their place. In that sense, the themes reminded me of Life of Pi.
On a final note, speaking of the importance of accurately remembering the past in order to move forward, this week I was very moved to read the statement made as the first order of business of the first, freely elected East German Parliament to form in 1990, after the fall of the Wall:
“We, the freely elected parliament of the GDR . . . on behalf of the citizens of this land, admit responsibility for the humiliation, expulsion and murder of Jewish men, women and children. We feel sorrow and shame, and acknowledge this burden of German history . . . We ask all the Jews of the world to forgive us. We ask the people of Israel to forgive us for the hypocrisy and hostility of official East German policies toward Israel and for the persecution and humiliation of Jewish citizens in our country after 1945 as well.”
This statement was passed unanimously and met by a long ovation. Having visited Berlin, I would say that the Germans have much to teach about the importance of facing the things that happen to you (both individually and corporately) and the things that you have done to others. They make it their business to remember and they have made meaningful steps forward, I’d like to learn from that as a British person. There is a key for the future in illumination.