Summary – Chapter Twenty One, ‘Falling in Love, 1934-1941’, A Letter (from Alex to Jonathan) and Chapter Twenty Two, ‘Illumination’
Chapter Twenty One returns to Jonathan’s narration. Here, it is explained that his grandfather sleeps with ‘the Gypsy girl’ seven months before she kills herself and he marries someone else. Of all the women he has had sex with, she is the ‘only one he returned to without having to be asked’; they have been making love for seven years at least twice a week. The narrative focus shifts somewhat and she asks him how he arranges his books in his room, and this question is not explained.
She knows she is a secret he keeps and ‘even if he thought he loved her, he did not love her’. They exchange notes ‘like children’. Safran makes his out of newspaper clippings and the words come from reports of the advancing Nazis. She carves her notes in trees in the forest.
He takes her to the Dial and tells her of his great-great-great-grandmother’s ‘tragic life’ and promises to ask for help when he tries to write Trachimbrod’s history. She speaks of her ‘father’s abuses’ and how her uncle has forced himself on her. He tells her how his love for his mother has never diminished and would rather have a kiss from her than anyone in the world. She cries but does not say she is jealous and instead laughs as if to say how silly. She says she wishes there was an 11th commandment, ‘Do not change’.
At 17, he tells her his parents have arranged his marriage to a girl called Zosha. After he tells her, they make love for the last time (and they are unaware that the next seven months will pass without any words between them). For seven months, they ignore each other until he passes her as he goes into her house. He asks her what she has been doing, and is afraid she has revealed their relationship. She says how stupid she thinks he is to arrange his books by the color of their spines.
He goes to his room to check everything and sees it has been left the same as before. He goes round to Lista’s home, who is the only woman to inspire him to bathe. He falls asleep with his head in her lap. Before leaving, he gives her the book he has brought with him (which is Hamlet). She asks if he has given her it for keeps and he says she will give it back to him one day. Seven months after ‘the Gypsy girl’ and Safran make love, the first German bombing affects Trachimbrod.
In the letter from Alex to Jonathan, dated 26 January 1998, he says he is angry that he does not allow his grandfather to be in love with ‘the Gypsy girl’. He calls Jonathan a coward and says he has disappointed him. He says he and his family are cowards.
He goes on to say he has not given his grandfather the money and (also) felt cowardly. He has not given it to him because he does not believe in the Augustine his grandfather is searching for. He thinks he would have found her as she really was and not as he imagined, and this would have killed him.
He then says how this is a situation ‘without winning’ as his grandfather died four days ago. He found him in the bath and he had ‘cut his hands’. The bath was full of blood. Alex punched him and punched him to wake him up (but he was dead). He and his mother told Little Igor that he had an accident with sleeping pills. He says how it had already been an eventful evening and for the first time in his life he told his father what he thought of him.
In Chapter Twenty Two, Alex repeats to Jonathan what his grandfather told him, about how Herschel would care for the baby (Alex’s father) and even called it son. He was a poet and did not have a family of his own.
Alex also asked his grandfather why he left Kolki and he said he did not want Alex’s father to grow up ‘so close to death’ and that is why he never told him about what happened. Alex’s grandfather then called himself a bad father.
In an aside, Alex asks Jonathan if he remembers how his grandfather examined the photograph. At this time, he then placed it back in the box and told them what happened and says how he as good as murdered Herschel.
He told them ‘they’ came in the darkest time of the night. ‘They’ had come from another town and would go on to another afterwards. He looked out of the window and saw four tanks and men walking alongside them with guns. These were pointed at doors and windows in case anyone tried to run. He explained that he was scared even though he knew he was not the one they wanted. The tanks stopped in front of the synagogue and in Ukrainian the general with blond hair said that everyone must come to the synagogue ‘with no omissions’. The soldiers punched on every door and investigated every house to make sure everyone came.
They went outside and Herschel was on one side of him and Anna (Alex’s grandmother) with the baby was on the other. Herschel said he was so scared that he thought he was going to cry. The general spoke again and said they are to do everything commanded or they will be shot.
Herschel whispered how frightened he was. Grandfather wanted to tell him to run so he might have a chance, but was afraid of being shot for speaking and did not want to think of his death. He just said ‘be brave’ and thinks this is the most stupid thing he has ever uttered.
The general asked for the Rabbi, who raised his hand, and the Cantor, who did too. These two and the Cantor’s wife were seized and taken into the synagogue. The general ordered the Jews to move forward and no one moved. He then shouted the order and no one moved. He went to the first in line, to a Jewish man called Abraham, and told him to point out a Jew. They were told that if a Jew is not pointed out, the person asked would be considered a Jew. Abraham pointed to Aaron and two guards seized him. He resisted and they shot him in the head and Grandfather felt Herschel touch his hand. Leo was the second in line and he was asked to say who is a Jew and he pointed to Abraham, and said sorry to him. Abraham was taken to the synagogue and a woman tried to run away with her baby. The general shouted in German and one the guards shot her in the back of the head, and they pulled her and her alive baby into the synagogue.
All the Jewish people except Herschel were in time taken to the synagogue and Herschel had not been named. The general was in the second row when the next man asked said all the Jews are in the synagogue. (This passage is now related without any punctuation). He did not know Herschel was either there or Jewish, and the man was shot. The next man was asked and he also said there are no Jews left and he was also shot in the head. The general asked the next man, and this was ‘me’ (Alex’s grandfather). He felt Herschel’s hand again. The general asked him again and he felt his wife’s hand. He said Herschel was a Jew and Herschel was crying and asked him, Eli, to say it was not true. Two guards seized him and he shouted for him to say there are no more Jews and is afraid of dying, and to do something.
Everyone outside heard ‘the crying of the babies’ and ‘the crying of the adults’ and they saw the ‘black spark’ when the first match was lit by ‘a youngman’ who could not have been older than him or Herschel. The fire was ‘soslow’ and had to be re-made many times. Grandfather kissed his wife and son and knew he had to change everything and leave everything behind and could not let his son know what he did. He also said ‘a father is always responsible for his son’ and held him ‘with so much force that he cried’ and loved him so much he ‘made love impossible’.
Analysis – Chapter Twenty One, ‘Falling in Love, 1934-1941’, A Letter (from Alex to Jonathan) and Chapter Twenty Two, ‘Illumination’
The suicide of Alex’s grandfather is reported in the letter to Jonathan and this appears just prior to the chapter (‘Illumination’) that explains ‘everything’. This timing has the effect of once more foreshadowing what is to come in the novel. By switching through time in this way, the structure also highlights how closely connected the characters are to events of the distant and not so distant past. It is possible to argue, then, that time is collapsed as Alex’s grandfather becomes overwhelmed by memories and history.
Grandfather’s decision to lie about his personal history and to re-invent himself for the purposes of a new beginning away from violence is depicted as ironic as his son goes on to perpetrate violence against his own sons.
His guilt, like Lista’s, is caught up in events that in different ways eroded one’s freedom to choose, and his suicide emphasizes how the effects of trauma is far-reaching and unlimited by time. The portrayal of these characters being forced to make impossible decisions may be compared to Sophie’s Choice (1979) by William Styron.