This novel is divided with the use of short, unnumbered chapters and letters that have been written by Alex and sent to Jonathan. For the purposes of this guide, the chapters have been numbered as well as named.
Summary: Chapter One, ‘An Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Journey’
The novel begins with the first-person narrator introducing himself as Alexander Perchov and then he says how all of his friends ‘dub’ him Alex. His mother ‘dubs’ him ‘Alexi-stop-spleening-me’ and his father used to ‘dub’ him Shapka because of the fur hat he used to ‘don’.
He says he has many girls and they all have different names for him. He also has a ‘miniature’ brother who ‘dubs’ him Alli. His name is Little Igor, but their father calls him ‘Clumsy One’, ‘because he is always promenading into things’.
Alex then explains he was ‘sired’ in 1977, which is ‘the same year as the hero of this story’. He describes himself as ordinary and says that this is why he was so ‘effervescent’ to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer (who is the ‘hero’ he previously referred to). Alex’s father ‘toils’ for a travel agency ‘denominated’ Heritage Touring. It is for Jewish people who, ‘like the hero’, want to visit towns in Poland and the Ukraine and come from the United States. His father’s agency provides a translator, guide and driver and Alex tells of how his father asked him to work for him when a translator was needed for the month of July in the first year of Ukrainian independence, which is a time when others planned to be away.
He goes on to describe his grandfather, who says he became blind after Alex’s grandmother died. Alex’s father does not believe he is blind, but bought him a dog called Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior to help him. Alex says his grandfather has changed since Grandmother died and in parenthesis he asks that the references to his grandfather crying stays between them.
Alex, his father and grandfather are all called Alexander (as the eldest born sons) and adds that his grandfather was born in 1918 in Odessa (which is where they live). After Jonathan called, his grandfather agreed reluctantly to be the guide and said this would be his last time. When they arranged to meet ‘the hero’, Alex’s father explained how two days would be spent in the area of Lutsk as Jonathan is looking for the town his grandfather came from. The town is Trachimbrod and is 50 kilometres from Lutsk. Alone with Alex, his grandfather tells he does not want to drive ten hours ‘to an ugly city to attend to a very spoiled Jew’.
Analysis – Chapter One, ‘An Overture to the Commencement of a Very Rigid Journey’
This first chapter introduces the first-person narrator, Alex, and establishes his idiosyncratic use of English. As a Ukrainian-born citizen, English is necessarily his second language and his particular use of words is later explained (page 23) as being influenced by his use of a thesaurus.
It is also in this early stage that aspects of his family life are introduced, such as the name of his brother, father and grandfather and how his grandfather was born in Odessa. These seemingly minor points are made more significant as the novel progresses, so it is necessary to make note of the information Alex has (and shares with the readers) at this point.