Image:  Visual Editions
Image:  Visual Editions
Image:  Visual Editions
Image:  Visual Editions
Image:  Visual Editions
Image:  Visual Editions
Image:  Visual Editions
Image:  TPL

"Tree of Codes" by Jonathan Safran Foer: a Yamakasi Reading


These are Jonathan Safran Foer’s first words in this interview at the 2012 Louisiana Literature Festival: “You know, when I made this book I didn’t think of it as something that would be difficult to read at all”.


If you don’t have the physical book at hand you cannot possibly know the extent to which his words are bold. Because let’s face it —you too, Jonathan— when approached for the first time the form of this particular book is not only “difficult” but almost inscrutable. Before finding the entrance this reader bumped flat on her face at least thirty times against a holey wall of stacked words she found impossible to read. She had to content herself with looking at it, on her face an intrigued perplexed expression which also had the effect of reminding her she shares 99% of her basic DNA sequence with some chimpanzee out there.

First attempt: shocked by the form of this particular book, all basic principles of book reading were erased from this reader’s mind. Hence, she starts reading it in deep perspective, struggling to form any slightly intelligible sentence by linking the words sticking out among the die-cuts of the overlapping pages. Result: “back rising and fall the mother and I wanting to The passersby over a keyboard less day. The enormous of paving stones had their eyes half-closed”. It’s not until after a number of simian experiments that this reader thought of actually reading the book page by page like you would do with any other book. Oh well, that’s it: “The passersby had their eyes half-closed. Everyone wore his mask”. This same experience was shared by other readers and it is not trivial at all. What it means is that our first encounter with “Tree of Codes” already dismantles our rather stable previous ideas of what a book should look like. And it is no coincidence that nearly all of the critics and reviewers mainly noted its “sculptural quality” and not its literary qualities.

Happy with her brilliant discovery, this reader proceeds, at last, to read the book. She then finds out that some parkour training is needed here too. Jumping from one textual platform to the other without falling into the void or bumping flat against the overlapping phrases and weaving the words into some meaningful shape, all of this is a tricky exercise. But this kind of Yamakasi reading is all about practice. Keeping an accurate pace and jumping rhythm requires concentration, some reading habit and a certain playful mind setting. With this book you really need to know how to leap into the void.

Let me tell you this in advance: once there, reading “Tree of Codes” is not only not-difficult but also an unexpected (at this point of the simian transformation) pleasure.


Tree of Codes is a book carved into another book. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote it by eliminating —physically die-cutting— some of the words in “Sklepy cynamonowe”, a Bruno Schulz book written in 1934. With the remaining words Safran Foer created his own story. “Sklepy cynamonowe” (literally, “the cinnamon shops”) is a short story collection translated into English as “The Street of Crocodiles”. This title is also die-cut into Safran Foer’s own, as follows: “the sTREEt OF croCODilEs”.

Although appreciating and enjoying “Tree of Codes” as an independent work of fiction does not require previous knowledge of Bruno Schulz’s book, the original source is ever present in all the absences in the die-cut pages. Jonathan Safran Foer delicately balances the tensions in the interwoven narratives, building upon it a completely new book which establishes — and this is the crucial point here — its own conversation with the reader, let alone with literary genealogies. “A way of being faithful to the referent book without being dependent on it”, as Safran Foer puts it.

Sometimes whole paragraphs are erased and Bruno Schulz’s pages are completely rewritten. In other occasions full sentences are recycled — “motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn” —their meaning multiplied by being inserted in a whole other context. Or maybe one of Bruno Schulz’s images is reappropriated in the new text, but conveyed in slightly different words, making them usually more abrupt and desolate — “The earth was covered with a tablecloth of winter. The hours of darkness hardened with boredom”.


Both stories are told by a narrator evoking some of his childhood’s memories, but while in “The Street of Crocodiles” he tells us about specific facts and events, “Tree of Codes” is more about his insights as a “vigilant observer of the secret gnawing life”. An eyewitness of the tedium amidst which the daily lives of the city inhabitants develop, he is also capable of guessing the potential wonders enclosed and awaiting inside those lives: “I knew the curtain would open to reveal experience and honesty”.

This vision of the city as a mixture of self-induced anhedonia, communication flaws, deception, yearning and latent possibilities is embodied in the image of the “tree of codes”, a map of the city owned by the narrator’s father:

“My father kept in his desk a beautiful map of our city […] Honeycombed streets, half a street, a gap between houses. That tree of codes shone with the empty unexplored. […] The inhabitants of the city — creatures of weakness, of voluntary breaking down, of immersion in easy intimacy, of secret winks, cynical gestures, raised eyebrows. Only a few people noticed the lack of color, as in black-and-white photographs. This was real rather than metaphorical — a colorless sky, an enormous geometry of emptiness, a watery anonymous gray which did not throw shadows and did not stress anything, a screen placed to hide the true meaning of things, a facade behind which there was an overintense coloring. exhausted by passivity, the poses and postures, the shifting weight from foot to foot,. we find ourselves part the tree of codes. Reality is as thin as paper. […] And yet, and yet- the last secret of the tree of codes is that nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Nowhere as much as there do we feel possibilities.”


Every sentence in “Tree of Codes” is a closed and independent poetic unit and a unit of meaning. All of them are individual powerful evocations — there are almost no footbridge phrases allowing the reader to gather his or her breath between jumps, no phrases acting as mere connectors between ideas. It is by their apposition that the reflective atmosphere in which the reader finds him or herself enveloped and imbibed is created.

And here’s where the die-cut becomes a key literary device. It’s not about technical whimsicality, production showing off or flimsy decoration, but rather, the entire book’s reading experience depends on it. The reading pace is inscribed in these die-cuts in a way not dissimilar to a stave and so we are forced to pay our full attention to its signs. One cannot miss a note (not even one of those tiny little punctuation marks floating in the void in the middle of the page) without causing everything to sound out of tune and watching how the meaning of the text crumbles down. Tree of Codes forces you to be hyperconscious of the reading experience, to silent your mind in order to read and understand in a way that makes this reader think more about poetry than about storytelling. It is, as Safran Foer said about Bruno Schulz’s work “beyond plot” and all about atmosphere.

The contribution of the editors at Visual Editions, designers at Sara de Bondt Studio and printers at Die Keure was also crucial for the literary form the book wound up having. While each page is die-cut in a different way and at first sight everything strikes you as a messy whole, and while the disposition of the words on the page seem random, the truth is the layout possesses a certain rhythmic harmony and measure. The gaps relate to one another in harmonic proportion — type lines and blank lines and gaped lines alternate more or less systematically, and the holes portray the missing text in an evocative, rather than literal, way.

“Tree of Codes” is a complex hybrid book and it poses some questions of the kind which make this reader salivate: how can a book’s physical form be used as a literary device? How can influences, genealogies and borrowing be acknowledged by rewriting a preexisting work in a radical and intimate way? To what extent is the historical concept of individual authorship really individual? Isn’t every contemporary writer more of an actant-writer, a net of genealogies and collaboration which finally converge and materialize — preferably in an original way — in the author’s name on the cover of the book?


All of Safran Foer’s quotes are taken from the Louisiana Literature Festival video I very much recommend.

I also recommend two other beautiful — and short — Visual Edition’s videos concerning this book. One of them shows people’s reactions when they come across the book for the first time and it’s delicious. The other shows you the nooks and crannies of the production process and it’s totally amazing. Don’t miss any of them.

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