Chapter 14: 28 October 1997
Alex has written to Jonathan again: Grandfather refused to accept payment for driving Jonathan around, and Alex is too afraid to ask Grandfather why, even though Alex has been saving up for a ticket to America. He dreams of having a luxurious apartment in Times Square big enough for both him and Little Igor. Meanwhile, Grandfather is becoming more depressed. He no longer hides his crying. Alex recently caught him crying over some old photographs. The next night, he cried over the photograph of Augustine, repeating her name. The night after that, he cried over a picture of Jonathan, while still repeating "Augustine."
Jonathan has not given Alex much critique of Alex's most recent chapter. He hopes Jonathan likes his humor and is laughing with him, not at him. He has made some of the changes Jonathan requested. Jonathan also suggested that the dog should die in a "tragicomic accident while crossing the road," but Alex again refuses to remove the dog from the story.
Just as Yankel wrote "Everything for Brod," Alex feels dedicated to Little Igor, a good boy. Father never comes home for dinner anymore, but he goes out with his friends every night and comes home drunk and belligerent. Recently Father beat little Igor. In the mornings, Alex and Little Igor clean up Father's messes.
Alex thinks it is sad that Brod cannot feel things. Jonathan's writing has made him wonder why we think about things that cause us pain. Regarding the glow of making love, Alex claims to have seen a girl's bottom light up while having sex with her. He suggests that Jonathan change the story so that the astronaut looking down is Russian instead of American. He also asks Jonathan to send him American magazines. He is eager to keep exchanging chapters.
Alex continues to tell his family about Jonathan. But he explains to them that Jonathan is not a "Jew" with a capital J, but a jew, like the famous ones Alex knows about.
Chapter 15: The Very Rigid Search
Back in Ukraine: Jonathan is ready to go out in the morning. Overnight, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior has chewed up almost all of Jonathan's documents, including his maps. Jonathan is hungry and they go to the restaurant, though Alex has already eaten. Alex tries to ask the waitress out, and she asks if he will bring Jonathan along. Alex tells the waitress that Jonathan is a Jew. She asks to see his horns. Jonathan ends up with just a cup of coffee. Alex becomes increasingly annoyed with Jonathan throughout the day.
In the car, Grandfather is asleep as usual, and again he says "Anna?" when Alex wakes him. They start off to find Trachimbrod without the maps but soon decide to ask for directions. The attendant at the gas station has never heard of Trachimbrod, but he has heard of some of the other towns Jonathan mentions. He points them in a general direction. Jonathan tries to give the attendant a pack of Marlboro cigarettes as a tip, because his guide book suggested it.
Jonathan and Alex talk about never having been truly in love. They agree with Grandfather that Odessa is a better place to fall in love than Trachimbrod. Alex asks to see the photograph of Augustine again.
They keep asking others for directions, but not one admits having heard of Trachimbrod. Alex feels "as if we were in the wrong country, or the wrong century, or as if Trachimbrod had disappeared, and so had the memory of it." At midday, Alex approaches a woman sitting on the steps of a tiny house. The house is decrepit, and men's, women's, and children's clothing are strewn about the yard in an eerie fashion. The woman is peeling corn. She is friendly, but she says she has never heard of Trachimbrod or Sofiowka. Her smile, however, strikes Alex as a mark of something more. He recalls the photograph of Augustine and shows it to her. She says she does not recognize anyone, but Alex insensibly keeps asking her, and she keeps answering no. Finally she begins to cry, and Alex asks if anyone in the picture has ever seen her. She replies, "I have been waiting for you for so long." Alex repeats that they are searching for Trachimbrod. She begins to cry harder and says, "You are here. I am it."
Unlike Jonathan, Alex knows little about his immediate family's past. Because Grandfather is tormented by his past and will not discuss it, Alex instead attempts to control the future. He sees Little Igor in the same way Yankel sees Brod, as a chance to reinvent himself through the young. Throughout Alex's letters, he implies but never states that Father beats Little Igor. By now it is fair to assume that Father does beat him, and perhaps this is why Little Igor is always brusied. We can infer that this pattern contributes to Alex being so protective of Little Igor and why Alex wants to take Little Igor with him to America. As he says, "Everything for Little Igor."
Alex is also interested in getting to America for himself. He is trying to go somewhere new and exciting, while Jonathan is trying to recover the past. Alex is even willing to give up his family and Ukrainian identity for a chance to start anew. After all, he does not know much about his roots, although he knows how to make his way as a Ukrainian.
Chapter 14 exposes a bit of hypocrisy on Jonathan's part. He keeps asking Alex to omit the embarrassing parts of his own story, but he leaves in all the most intimate and shameful details of his family's lives when he writes. Furthermore, he invents disgusting and humiliating details about their lives. Most of the time, Jonathan sees himself as inextricably connected to his family's history. Yet, when he tries to edit his own story, he characterizes himself as separate from history.
As in many travel narratives, the state of the vehicle parallels the state of the characters. In Chapter 15, the car keeps getting stuck in the uneven country roads, just as Jonathan and Alex are lost without directions to Trachimbrod.
When he is talking to the old woman, Alex acts on instinct. He is compelled to keep pressuring her without knowing why, as though he is part of something greater. Something about the woman's house and manner triggers his interest.
Chapter 15 also reminds us of the power of words and images over the human mind. A simple reframing of his question begins to unlock the magic of the story. This interaction between Alex and the old woman is a keystone of the book. She sits there with the answer they are searching for, but she does not yet have permission to remember. Her memory is buried deep beneath fortresses of scars and purposeful forgetting. Alex batters at this fortress of denial, first with the photograph and then over and over again with his questions.
The passage of time often generates a sense of humility about even the bravest moments of one's past. Small tales can become tall tales, but monumental actions can be worn down by time and diminished by memory. So it is for the old woman until Alex breaks through to her. The facts that are so important for Jonathan's search are a part of her everyday life: 'I survived the Holocaust, I am a Jew, I know where to find Trachimbrod.' These facts seem normal to her after so many years, and they are integrated into her psyche despite having been hidden for so long.
It does not occur to her that she is the key to Jonathan's "illumination." Because of this humility and propensity for forgetting, the individual must rely on society for the encouragement to remember. If the elders can no longer keep memory alive due to the decimation and scattering of the population, the responsibility falls on the younger generation, the scattered remnants, to seek out and employ the keys of memory and history.