Chapter 29: Illumination
We are back at the hotel restaurant, where Grandfather is telling Alex and Jonathan about Herschel. They were very close. Alex cannot bear to write down the song that Herschel used to sing for Grandfather, because it haunts him and he wants to forget it. Grandfather is ashamed to continue his story, but Alex encourages him. For the first time, he and Grandfather are talking man to man instead of as grandfather and grandson. When Alex mentions Augustine, Grandfather says, "What is the good of something that you cannot find?"
Alex asks Grandfather to take them to Kolki, but he refuses, saying the town means nothing to him now. He repeats that he does not want to know Jonathan's grandmother's name: "my ghosts are not [in Kolki]." Alex says that his own ghosts are the spaces between love. Grandfather left Kolki because he did not want Father to grow up around death. He never told Father what happened in Kolki, wanting him to live a life without shame or death. But otherwise, Grandfather claims to have been a terrible father, responsible for the way that Father acts now.
Grandfather tells them the story of killing Herschel. The Nazis invaded Kolki with tanks, and the General ordered everyone to come to the synagogue and stand in lines. They did, and Grandfather stood next to Herschel and Grandmother. The General told the townspeople to obey every command or they would be shot. The Nazis told all the Jews to step forward, but no one did. So the general went to each man in line, and told him he must either point out a Jew or be considered one himself. Eventually, all the Jewish townspeople except Herschel were pointed out. Two men who did not know Herschel told the General that there were no Jews left outside--and were shot. Then the General asked Grandfather to point out a Jew. Herschel was squeezing his hand and silently begging him not to point to him, but he did. They dragged Herschel to the synagogue as he screamed for Grandfather to save him, but Grandfather had to save his wife and baby.
The Nazis lit the synagogue on fire, which illuminated the people lined up outside it. As the synagogue burned, Grandfather squeezed Father so tightly that he cried. He told Father that he loved him, and that it was for him that he betrayed Herschel. Grandfather says that this is why Father turned out the way he did; Grandfather was unable to love him anymore, because Father was a constant reminder of his crime. He asks Alex and Little Igor to forgive him for this result.
The style in which Alex is writing intensifies; the words run together, and it is hard to tell where one thought ends and another begins. He tells Jonathan that everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else. He wonders if he is guilty because Grandfather is guilty, and whether Grandfather can ever be forgiven.
The title of this chapter, "Illumination," names the process by which something is illuminated, which is the central promise of the novel's title. To some degree, every chapter in the book contributes to the overall illumination, but this chapter in particular expresses illumination well, both literally and figuratively. Many facts come to light in this chapter, and there is a revelation on a grander scale. It is just as meaningful for Jonathan to uncover Grandfather's past as it is for him to uncover his own grandfather's. Grandfather can serve as his own grandfather, and Lista can be his Augustine, because Jonathan is not ultimately a lover of raw facts. He is a lover of illumination, explanation, clarification, and embellishment of truths.
Grandfather's guilt in making an impossible choice is deep enough to carry forth from generation to generation. Alex feels guilty just being his grandson, and he does not know if he can forgive his grandfather. Love creates a light that can be seen into the future, but so does violence. These are similar beacons of the human spirit. Grandfather's deep love and protectiveness for Father made him choose an action that he knew would kill Herschel, and this betrayal quickly turned to hatred for Father. Thus, one could hope that Alex's anger over Grandfather's violence will turn in the other direction, giving them the mutual love that they have recently experienced in speaking man to man as equal members of the family.
Alex's mind is racing as he writes out Grandfather's story, and the typography of his writing reflects his franticness. Words run together and punctuation disappears to reveal an extremely honest stream of consciousness. This device mimics the unfiltered, conversational stream of spoken words between friends who trust one another to be able to say and listen to anything together. Thus, this device gives the written word a new power and new responsibilities.