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  • Peeping through the Holes of a Translated Palimpsest in Jonathan Safran Foer's Tree of Codes
  • Kasia Szymanska (bio)

Purchasing a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer's die-cut book Tree of Codes (2010) borders on the miraculous. Because of its limited print run and production costs, even secondhand copies command exorbitant prices. One of Foer's interviewers admitted he might be too "poor" to buy a new copy and so, for the sake of the interview, he needed to borrow one from the London Library (Testard). According to one of the book's first reviewers, Tree of Codes might be too precious to stock because booksellers will "be chewing their lower lips in stress whenever a customer leafs through its delicate web of pages" (Faber). Yet against all odds, this bestselling US writer who had previously written two fully fledged novels (both adapted for the screen) still invested his time and energy in producing a fragile book artifact that would soon become an artsy collectible. Turning to a London-based independent publisher, Foer pushed the erasure technique to an extreme. Instead of the more manageable option of rubbing out or covering eliminated words, he literally carved a new book out of the old one, leaving only a tenth of the source text―or more precisely, according to N. Katherine Hayles's meticulous calculations: 3,815 out of 37,483 words (227). The remnant paper lace, sufficiently delicate to give booksellers a headache, can bring readers and critics alike to the verge of despair. Peeping through the holes in pages makes underwritten fragmented words, scattered letters, and obscured layers of printed paper all come to the fore at once. Indeed, Foer's [End Page 32] ostentatiously material book could be seen as a paragon of what Jessica Pressman called the "aesthetic of bookishness." This handy phrase recapitulates her discussion of how twentieth-century literature, including Foer's fetishistic "bookish memorial," reclaims its material territory in the digital age (Pressman, "Jonathan" 98).

Comparative textual media and materialist readings of literature offer promising interdisciplinary frameworks; however, with their largely monolingual approach, it is difficult to escape the impression that we sometimes keep floating on the surface of things. When hovering over the texture of the final product, a less tangible form of textual mediation remains out of sight. Let us reinstate this point with regard to Foer's book: the erasure in this case happens to nothing other than a literary translation, a text already overwritten on and standing for another text from a different language and a directly inaccessible cultural reality. Even though there seems to be some consensus about the translation's role in the process, analyses of the book's textual shape have so far implicitly taken for granted the transparency of the Polish–English linguistic transfer in Foer's cutting. This has also occurred in the works that otherwise take notice of the potential lack of "faithfulness" in Wieniewska's translation (Faber), how it "doubles" the act of erasure (Wurth), its contribution to the "thrice-removed, translated cutup" (Ardoin, "A Thousand" 415), to how it "occlud[es] the . . . history of the book in translation" (Walkowitz 233), and to the mediation by "a third book" (Pressman, "Jonathan" 111). Still, a general disregard for the medium of translation in discussing the textual shape of Tree of Codes has prevailed equally among academics, critics, and journalists―to the extent that, considering the authorial status of the book, his interviewer for Vanity Fair claimed that Foer used Bruno Schulz's words for his erasure ("You are using his words"; Wagner). Surely, whose words they ultimately are is a much more complex question. But this question is precisely one we should be posing here, and this book ostentatiously forces us to think about it in relation to translation and different forms of mediation at play. With its pages chipping off and holes exposing who or what is underneath, the book can alert the readers to its own, otherwise obscured translational provenance. [End Page 33]

In this respect, I suggest that in addition to the methodologies of literary studies, media studies, and book history to which comparative textual media resort, we look at Tree...