Summary – Chapter Twelve, ‘The Very Rigid Search’, Chapter Thirteen, ‘The Dial, 1941-1804-1941’ and A Letter (from Alex to Jonathan)
At the hotel, Alex and his grandfather have breakfast and do not tell Jonathan. When Alex calls for him to say they are leaving, Jonathan lets him know that the dog has chewed his documents and he now has only half a passport.
Jonathan then goes for breakfast and Alex talks to the waitress. He asks if she is going to the ‘discotheque’ tonight and she in turn asks if the American is coming and Alex tells her he (Jonathan) is a Jew. He says (now, to the readers and Jonathan) he knows he should not have said this, and the waitress says how she has never seen a Jew before and asks if she can see his horns.
As they drive towards villages close to Trachimbrod, Alex’s grandfather speaks of his parents for the first time that Alex remembers. They ask people as they travel if they know where Trachimbrod is. No one knows and everybody they ask is angry or silent when they ask them.
They stop again to ask a woman which way they should go. She is poor and old, and she asks Alex where he comes from. He admits he is from Odessa and he asks if she knows of Trachimbrod or Sofiowka. She says no. However, when he shows her the photograph he thinks she recognizes somebody. Alex asks her repeatedly if she knows anybody in it, and if she has witnessed anybody she knows. She keeps saying no. He then asks if anybody in the photograph has witnessed her. She is crying and says, ‘I have been waiting for you for so long’. He says they are searching for Trachimbrod. She ‘releases’ ‘a river of tears’, and says, ‘you are here. I am it’.
In Chapter Thirteen, the narrator (Jonathan) tells of his grandfather running to the Dial before his wedding at the shtetl, and this is after a woman has given him her underwear.
He and all other bridegrooms know of how Brod, his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, begged her new husband not to work at the flour mill. The narrative shifts back and it is explained how then, in his second month of working there, that the men from the mill come to Brod’s door. Her husband has been hit by a disk-saw blade that has spun off its bearings and it is now stuck in his head. He goes to the doctor and alternates between swearing uncontrollably and being back to normal. The doctor is the first victim of these ‘malicious eruptions’. This is the only symptom of the blade and the blade remains in place for the rest of his life. They go on to have three sons, but with time the Kolker becomes gradually worse with Brod. Less than a year after the accident, he starts hitting her.
They sleep separately for a while, but his condition worsens anyway. In time, she expects a sound beating every morning before he goes to work. To the bafflement of the doctors, he refrains from having an outburst at work though.
He buys her a surprise gift for her 18th birthday and she tells him she does not love him. She cries, and this is the first time she does so in five years. (We are told that the last time she cried was after she was raped). She goes to the Kolker later and tells him she does love him. He says how he will be dead soon and wonders if they can pretend to love each other until he has gone. She says they can do that and she cuts a hole in the wall between their two rooms and this is how they get on with each other in their last year of marriage and includes them making love.
He begins to look ill and older and she persuades him to change his name to Safran to confuse the Angel of Death. She begins her grieving before he dies. When they talk, he says how he has to tell her something, that Yankel was not her real father. Their baby is born 18 days later and minutes after this he (the Kolker/Safran) dies.
The men at the flour mill want her to love them as they love her and chip in to have the Kolker’s body bronzed. The blade is left in place and it acts as a sundial. He soon becomes a symbol of ‘luck’s power’. So many come to rub his various body parts that he is re-bronzed every month and so the narrator’s grandfather kneels before him and wipes the sweat from his brow (with his ‘panty-hanky’). At the end of the chapter, he asks that he does not let him hate who he becomes.
In the letter from Alex to Jonathan, dated 17 November 1997, he refers to his own writing and then says how he almost ‘cast off’ Jonathan’s last piece but it ‘all became illuminated’ and was happy when he returned to the story of Brod and the Kolker.
He asks him to make Brod happy and says how it would be wonderful if she could be Augustine. He also says he should tell his grandmother about his trip to the Ukraine. He then remembers when they sat on Augustine’s step.
As he continues, he admits to Jonathan that he has never been ‘carnal’ with a girl. Lying about this has in the past made him feel like a ‘premium person’ and when his father has been drinking he asks him about such things. Alex also lies to Little Igor so that he will think he is ‘cool’. He sees that in writing ‘we have second chances’ and this is why he likes it so much.
He then says how his grandfather asks every day if he knows if Jonathan has forgiven him for what he has told him about the war and Herschel. In parenthesis, Alex tells Jonathan he can alter it, ‘for him, not for me’ as the novel is now approaching the time of the war. He defends his grandfather and says he is a good person ‘alive in a bad time’ and sees him crying almost every day.
Analysis – Chapter Twelve, ‘The Very Rigid Search’, Chapter Thirteen, ‘The Dial, 1941-1804-1941’ and A Letter (from Alex to Jonathan)
The introduction of the woman who recognizes the photograph is a crucial point in the novel as she tells them that she is Trachimbrod. It is not entirely clear at this point, but she later becomes pivotal as she is the only remaining living reminder from this time.
The letter from Alex to Jonathan is also of note for the way it demonstrates that there is a gap in information between the letters that Alex writes and the story that is being related of the odyssey that Jonathan, Alex and his grandfather take. When Alex says, for example, that his grandfather is a good person ‘alive in a bad time’ it is apparent that we are being warned of the narrative to come.