Everything Is Not Illuminated

By Joshua Cohen

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.

PRAGUE — Literature is the accounts of the outside writing in. This is a “golden rule,” for the post-World War I “lost generation” and, it’s possible to argue, for the whole of Jewish literature. Central and Eastern Europe has played host to some of literature’s greatest outsiders, including Franz Kafka, who, writing in German, became the patron saint of this hundred-some-spired seat of Bohemia, the displaced kingdom of some of the greatest prose and the greatest prose writers the German language had ever known.

Recently, Central Europe has played host to a new generation of expatriate writers and, some believe, has once again become the displaced kingdom of some of the greatest prose and prose-writers – this time, in English. This newly-minted cadre of literary superstars includes Gary Shteyngart, who lived here before writing his wildly popular take on our spoiled literati scene, titled “Russian Debutante’s Handbook”; Jonathan Safran Foer, whose “Everything is Illuminated” depicts a quest for roots in a fictional town on the river Brod; and Arthur Phillips, whose novel about the restless lives of underemployed expats is titled, predictably, “Prague.”

But outsiders toting backpacks and wielding Platinum Plus cards aren’t the right kind of outsiders for literature. They’re a Mercedes-length from the edge, and literature needs someone on the precipice. It’s dangerous on that precipice, but the danger, well, illuminates the prose. And there’s no more of that danger left in this Europe, once again at the edge of Empire.

Central and Eastern Europe from 1989 to the receding present was a strange place for anyone. On the flight over, many soon-to-be expats treated themselves to hyphenated makeovers. They were now Jewish-Americans, or Jewish-Americans-of-Hungarian/Romanian/Whatever descent. During the days, they mooned after their roots, stepping over upturned gravestones and taking mental snapshots of former synagogues-turned-farm-equipment warehouses or Hussite churches. At night, they drank and slept with Slavic women. All the rubble of their heritage seemed obscenely picturesque. They paid the admission fees to Ruin. The Jewish tour agencies trotted out the animatronic goats, those necessary accessories of quaintness. The now-restored synagogues pumped in klezmer music through hidden speakers. Soon, their parents arrived for a visit. Dinner was on the credit card.

So it turns out that Shteyngart, Foer and Philips encapsulated a decade or so that actually never was. The Wild, Wild East was wild for one long Saturday night at Chateau, formerly Chateau Rouge, formerly Chapeau Rouge. The post-Socialist states went from socialism to Europeanism (the opposite of normalization) so quickly, especially in their capitals, that there’s almost no middle history. If these writers intended to write their incestuous history of drinking, drugs and sex and finding Pop-pop’s roots, then so be it. It doesn’t mean they should be read.

And then there’s the imagination or re-imagination dilemma. It’s the age-old problem of Americans abroad, whose only great chroniclers so far have been Henry James and Mark Twain. Oppositely, we have the great Theater of Oklahoma. “Amerika”… yes, yes, alright already, it’s kind of hip to replace a hard “c” with a “k”; we all get it, fine… Kafka’s masterpiece of Karl Rossmann’s epic journey to America is a masterpiece precisely because Kafka didn’t know a single thing about America. He had to invent it.

Our new expat writers, especially Phillips and Shteyngart, merely transcribed expat bull sessions, and their American homes seem stranger to them than Europe does. These novels are by Americans, for Americans and of Americans. Europe is just referenced, invoked. Though it may be a violation of the Second Commandment, these writers should try making something.

“I’ll spleen it to you…,” offers Jonathan Safran Foer in the punning thesaurusism of “Everything is Illuminated.” What he’s explaining is that 1) Jews suffered in the Pale of Settlement and 2) going back to find your roots is probably going to be a disappointing experience. Instead of exploring this second idea, Foer resurrects Magical Realism and plays Jewry for all it’s worth. These aren’t invented worlds, or satirized worlds, they’re parodied. And parody is the lowest kind of writing. Your Jews have long beards? My Jews have longer beards! Your Jews suffer? You should see my Jews! Tying in an aliya of sorts — made by a character who shares a name with the author — with a history of a small chasidic village, we learn a few things: Orthodox Jews have sex through sheets; new Ukrainians, apart from speaking funny English, want money and sex like everyone else and don’t really give a flying blini about Jewish history; and, far and away the greatest lesson, Nazism is bad. “Everything” the Movie, with Liev Schreiber directing, pulls into Prague this summer. The real story of this movie isn’t its Hallmark yidishkayt; it’s the fact that it is filming Prague as a stand-in for the Ukraine, proving that sentiment and nostalgia is never exact.

“Who won the Cold War? We did. Our generation,” proclaims Arthur Phillips in “Prague,” a novel that takes place in Budapest. And in return, We Young Americans want 1) your half-dollar beers, 2) your women, and 3) well… everything else. Rendered in the adverbially saturated style of the Museum of Fine Arts program, especially interesting is the characterization of Budapest as a second-tier city. Everyone in this book is trying to get to Prague. The book would have been over on page 2 if Phillips had his money-from-home expat characters buy a train ticket. His expats are as thin as postcards, and if his Hungarians are postcards, then they were lost in the mail.

“‘Maybe you could write for the Prava-dence,’ suggested Cohen,” suggests Gary Shteyngart in his “Russian Debutante’s Handbook.” And maybe he should. Expat novels, especially this one, don’t realize their self-parody. The real expat novel is a stack of empty pages stained with 10 degree Budvar (the real Budweiser) and riddled with cigarette burns. When you satirize second-rate poets and fiction wannabes, you’re no better than they are. Shteyngart doesn’t realize that by tearing down pretentious literary ambition, he’s shooting himself in the foot.

This insider/outsider thing fascinated me. So I asked Lenka Reinerová what she thought. Who is she? She’s not published by Random House/Bertelsmann AG. She has one publicity photo and her hair’s mussed in it. She doesn’t have e-mail. She’s an 87-year-old Jewish German-language writer living in Prague, the last branch of the tree that leads through Kafka, Egon Erwin Kisch, Max Brod, Oskar Baum, Hermann Ungar and handfuls of names the present has mostly forgotten – and she’s the very last real outsider in European letters. She is outside, “other,” because history has forced her there.

Fresh from winning the Goethe Medal in late March, she spoke with me about the roots every American or Jewish-American here wants to recapture — a quest she cannot quite fathom. She thought all that stuff was taken care of. She spent her entire life fleeing Nazis and in prison, getting away from that thing.

I asked her what she thinks about all the Americans moving in to Prague and writing novels. I had to lean in to hear her above the Italian tourists at Cafe Slavia, formerly the foremost literary cafe and now a tourist trap. “I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “It’s bringing Prague back to where it was, the center of Europe, the center of ideas, where everything meets.”

Asked if she had read any of their works, she said, “No.”

When you play Europe for local color and Pale of Settlement Jews for laughs, filtered through the requisite inferiority complexes, you’ll win the National Jewish Book Award and sell as many copies as there are permutations of the names of God, but you’ll miss what’s really in Europe: the strangeness of impending empire (the EU), the rising antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiment. Europe doesn’t care anymore for roots (except that nostalgia constitutes maybe half of each nation’s economy.) Europe’s too busy propagandizing itself to look backwards. And all the Americans, especially the Jewish-Americans, are deeply disappointed.

They wanted the “faded grandeur,” the long drags on hand-rolled cigarettes at some sidewalk cafe with an espresso, and an old Gypsy (not Romany) fiddler. And they were disappointed. They wanted three-piece-suits, pince-nez glasses and pipes. And they were disappointed. They wanted refinement, and they got Coca-Cola. And they were disappointed. And the problem is this: They don’t write toward their disappointment; they write against it.

The days of Philip Roth’s sexual reportage from the other side of the frozen pond have been over for a while. This is the new Europe: Eurotrash discos, small multicolored pills, oversized sunglasses, thongs and rising prices; more Ibiza than Izbica, Poland. And if you want proof that Europe isn’t the Europe of these novels, read Václav Kahuda (from the Czech Republic) or Natasza Goerke (from Poland), or any other of a dozen names. But you’ll have to read them in Czech or Polish, as no Multinational National Socialist Publishing House has deigned to translate them yet.

When French teenagers and German geriatrics aren’t papering the streets with rolls of euros, it’s a five-minute walk from where I’m writing this to one of at least nine apartments that advertise Kafka’s inhabitance during one tubercular month or another. Since that heady time of expat infiltration, Central and Eastern Europe has gone Europe on us, the European Union money machine has flooded the markets and the dollar has steadily dropped.

A few writers in the know have left for Thailand. Many took semi-professional jobs in corporate Europe — American investment firms or nongovernmental organizations and British insurance companies. Some of them went home and took walk-on parts in Dilbert comic strips. Many started books. Few actually finished them. Even fewer sold them. The only Americans here now are the moneyed investors and the college kids on exchange programs or summer “experiences.”

Imperialism is an American and a Jewish thing; it’s just that the Jews do it with more style. After a few years of letting American Jewish youth, the sons and daughters of the Revolution, sow their wild oats, drink the drinks, sleep with the women and scream in the offended streets, we’ll be flooded with a new wave of expat literature. Thailand’s due for a bestseller from not-so-Innocents Abroad. Kabul is already the Left Bank of the ’00s, and Baghdad or Basra should be next. Should they start writing or investing in real estate?



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