"When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing, wether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home. He had lived in an apartment with books touching the ceilings, the rugs thick enough to hide dice; then in a room and half with dirt floors; on forest floors, under unconcerned stars; under the floorboards of a Christian who, half a world and three-quarters of a century away, would have a tree planted to commemorate his righteousness; in a hole for so many days his knees would never fully unbend; among Gypsies and partisans and half-decent Poles; in transit, refugee, and displaced persons camps; ...."
Here I am is, in short, a book about a marriage in a crisis, the Holocaust and its aftermath to jewish families or what is left of them (some in the US, some in Israel, some wherever, most dead)
"German horticulturalists had pruned Isaac's family tree all the way back to the Galacian soil. But with luck and intuition and no help from above, he had transplanted its roots into the sidewalks of Washington,..."
Jews in the USA, the demands of jewish life in general, and Israel, is Israel the homeland of the Jews or just something, they stole, what does it mean to Jews in America? What is the difference between Jews in America and Jews in Israel? This seems to be a key question in Jonathan Safran Foers first novel after 10 years. For me, the key question, actually, is: Am I here? Meaning: am I truly present in my own life, my own reality? Since it happens, that Safran Foer is jewish, it makes perfect sense, to link this question to the jewish identiy, which is difficult to define. Is it the rituals? Is it the past, the family, the homeland or the constant threat and danger? Jacob, Isaaks grandson, is the one , whose marriage is dissolving, in my eyes as a consequence of his never fully being present in it. So, conseqently, since Safran Foer is a daring writer, Here I am is also a book about the near destruction of Israel and the region through an earthquake, so, unevitably it is a book about politics, about war, and human nature, both in private and in public. Who reacts how to the possibility to eliminate Israel?
The private has always been connected to basically world politics and history in his books. Last but not least, it is a book about family, what to do with dogs, who poo in the house, great-grandfathers, who do not want to move into a jewish home for the elderly, and what to do with a teenage son, who might have or might not have written the n ... and other words not acceptable on a sheet of paper found by his teacher and in general does not want a bar mitzvah, which his parents very much want him to have, (to make clear, that they are jewish!) for which even the cousins from Israel come flying in. The ones, who in Jacobs eyes, might have a real life, since they have to go to war, they were in combat, they had real adventures.
So, you might wonder, if it can be possible, to put all this ( and more, sorry to add that) into one novel. But then you remember, this is Jonathan Safran Foer, we are talking, the guy, who already has put 9/11, Hiroshima and the bombing of Dresden into one novel and made perfect sense of a connection, you always sensed was there. After reading this, you thought, he might be a philosopher (he, btw, actually has a degree in philosophy), because he is always so willing, and also capable, to see the whole, not just a tiny portion of what is going on. So for me, this book is also about the here and now. It is a reflection of everything going on in a world, that is, without the earthquake, still pretty shaken. He just explores another extreme, he explores, how extreme the world would leave the jewish people alone, if it came to an extreme case. Just as alone, as they leave the syrian people right now? No, probably even more alone, because there is anti-semitism everywhere. It also explores, how the jewish people would react to this.
Here I am is also a book about how to be, or not be, truly engaged and present in your own life.
Jacob, the husband, the father, the son, the grandson, is very much not present in his life. He is always sort of waiting for the real, the interesting, the true life to start. In that, he reminds me of myself, but also of many many people I know. Missing your own life, while waiting for the big one, which is meant for you and about to start any moment.
Here I am is hilariously funny, its dialogues are like Woody Allens with Diane Keaton in the old and really brilliant movies, only better!
The ideas are jumping at the reader like a firework. Which always has been a quality in Safran Foers writing. Which makes the book, like all his books, highly entertaining. Sometimes I kept reading, though I was tired and it was late, just because I could not get enough of his language, his words, his brilliant, jewellike sentences. One truth after the other, one beautiful observation after the other.
"We read Hamlet in school this year, and everybody knows the whole "To be or not to be" business, and we talked about it for like three consecutive classes - the choice between life and death, action and reflection, whatever and whatever. .... And that got me thinking that also maybe one doesn't have to exactly choose. "To be or not to be. That is the question" To be and not to be. That is the answer."
(c) Susanne Becker