Chapter 16: The Dial, 1941-1804-1941
A woman whom the narrator does not identify takes off her panties in a very deliberate manner. She is aroused. We learn that she will die, before having children, in the water along with the rest of the shtetl. She folds the panties neatly and places them in a man's breast pocket like a handkerchief. The man is getting married that day. They flirt, and she tells him to meet her at the Dial. It is summer, and everything is in bloom.
The man is Jonathan's grandfather, Safran. He runs to the Dial to join the other shtetl men. A band begins the Dial Waltz, which traditionally is sung for each man of Trachimbrod before he is married. The song refers to the groom's wife and their upcoming sexual consummation. As Safran walks to the Dial, he wishes the Gypsy girl were there. She is his true love. Safran is equally honored and sad to become an adult and take his place in his family's history.
The Dial was created after Safran's great-great-great-grandfather, Shalom the Kolker, suffered a tragic accident. The story: Brod is seven months pregnant at the time. She urges her new husband not to work at the flour mill, but he goes anyway. Brod remarks that love is hating someone's absence even more than loving their presence. Brod waits for her husband to come home every day after work. She loves to be dependent on him. She is very happy that she can finally love, and she wishes Yankel could know this. She does not want her husband to be smart, because she wants them to have a simple relationship. They have had only six real conversations in three years.
Two months into the Kolker's job at the flour mill, Brod learns that a disk-saw blade came loose and lodged itself in the middle of his skull, perfectly vertically. He is not dead, but the blade will remain in his head for the rest of his life; removing it would kill him. The only symptoms of his injury are his violent outbursts. He insults Brod frequently and unpredictably; soon he is hitting her as well.
The Kolker hates himself for hurting his wife, but he cannot stop himself. He takes a doctor's advice and sleeps in a separate room. The abuse subsides for a while but worsens again, and he beats her every morning and evening. For the last year of their marriage, the Kolker confines himself to his bedroom. Brod cuts a hole in the wall so that they can talk. One day, they undress and gaze at one another through the hole. This feels more intimate to them than any of the times they made love. They touch themselves in front of one another, and then make love through the hole. For the first time, their lives seem to have deep meaning.
Brod persuades her husband to change his name again to confuse the Angel of Death and prolong his life. He is no longer Shalom or the Kolker but Safran. She remembers this name from one of the notes on Yankel's ceiling, no doubt the one reminding him that Safran was once his name.
Meanwhile, we learn about the fate of a clan called the Wisps of Ardisht. They were exiled to the rooftops. They ration their cigarettes after they realize that the supply is dwindling. When they have only twenty matches left, lighting a cigarette becomes a ceremonial event. The people become hysterical about the matches, thinking they cannot survive without them. Then a child realizes that each cigarette can be lit by another cigarette. As long as there is always someone smoking, there is no need for matches. The clan members set up a smoking schedule so that they will never run out of fire. For them, each cigarette is "a candle of hope."
Brod feels the same way about the Kolker as the clan members do about cigarettes. She knows he will die, so she grieves and wears torn, black clothing. She is now eight months pregnant with the child conceived through the hole, Jonathan's great-great-great-great grandfather. The Kolker complains that Brod is breaking her promise--instead of loving him until he dies, she is acting as though he is already dead.
In the days before he dies, neither he nor Brod sleeps. They pass notes, kisses, and insults through the hole. Even when the Kolker tries to sing to Brod, he cannot help but curse her. By the time he dies, they have had one hundred real conversations. The Kolker tells Brod that Yankel was not her real father. She tells him she loves him, and she means it.
The Kolker dies just as their child is born. She does not know whether the Kolker was alive at the precise moment of birth, and since Jewish custom forbids naming a child after a living relative, she cannot name the baby after his father. She names the baby Yankel, the same as her other two children. Brod cuts out the ring of wood around the hole in the wall and wears it with the abacus bead on her neck. It reminds her of the Kolker, but also that life is empty.
The men at the flour mill have the Kolker's body bronzed, and they place it as a statue in the middle of the town square. The saw blade in his head serves as a perfect sundial: thus is the Dial created. The statue is meant to be a symbol of strength and vigilance, but it soon turns into one of good luck. People from all over come to touch the statue for good luck, so many that he has to be re-bronzed every month. His bronzed body becomes stronger with each bronzing. It is rebuilt so many times that it no longer looks like the Kolker. Rather, it looks like his descendants, after whom it is molded.
The text returns to Jonathan's grandfather, Safran, who is kneeling in front of the Dial on his wedding day. He wipes the sweat from his face with the panties the Gypsy girl gave him. He prays to his great-great-great-grandfather not to let him hate the man he will become. Then the men carry him through the streets on their shoulders, and he and his bride marry in a short ceremony.
Chapter 17: 17 November 1997
Alex has been asked by Jonathan to make the character of Jonathan seem less anxious, though Jonathan was moved by Alex's latest chapter. Alex writes to Jonathan that at first he found Jonathan's latest chapter so confusing that he wanted to throw it away, but now he loves it. He urges Jonathan to rewrite the chapter so that Brod is happy instead of having such a sad marriage.
It upsets Alex to think about Jonathan's relationship with his own grandmother. Like Grandfather, Jonathan's grandmother lost her spouse and had to be strong to survive. He urges Jonathan to tell his grandmother that he went to Ukraine, even though it is painful and awkward to watch one's grandparent cry. But it is a grandchild's duty to acknowledge his grandparent's feelings, like he does for Grandfather. Alex suggests that Jonathan went to Ukraine so that his grandmother could forgive him, which means that eventually she must learn that he went.
Alex now reveals the secret that he is a virgin. He only pretends to be promiscuous to impress Father and Little Igor. This is also why Alex likes writing so much; it lets him pretend to be someone he is not. Alex says he was born to be a writer, because "with writing, we have second chances."
Grandfather asks Alex about Jonathan every day. Grandfather wants to know if Jonathan has forgiven him about Herschel. Grandfather cries every night over what he did during the war. Alex himself forgives people for everything; he finds comfort in thinking that everything is meant to be, including his own fate. Yet, Alex wants a better future for Little Igor.
Alex ends the letter by reiterating that Grandfather is not a bad person; he should be forgiven. Alex also begs Jonathan to make him and his family appear better than they really are in his book.
Chapter 18: Falling in Love
Back to the trip: Alex returns to the car and wakens Jonathan and Grandfather. He tells them he has found Augustine--that is, the old woman. They all go to her house, and she cooks them a meal of potatoes and cabbage. She has a lame leg and walks slowly. Her house has just two rooms filled with thousands of items: clothing, books, papers, photographs, and much more. There are countless boxes with strange labels like "Darkness" and "Dust." Jonathan records each label in his diary.
Alex notices that Grandfather is smiling more than ever since Grandmother's death. He even combs his hair when the old woman is not looking. Jonathan asks her to tell him everything she knows about his family, and whether she was in love with his grandfather. Alex does not translate this question for fear of overwhelming her. He Alex cannot keep his eyes off the woman, positive that she really is Augustine. When she brings the food to the table, one of the potatoes drops to the floor. The three men laugh, remembering their dinner at the hotel.
Grandfather tells the woman several times that she is beautiful. She protests, but Alex agrees. She is shy. When Alex tells the woman that Jonathan is from America, she asks whether America is a place in Poland. She also does not know what an airplane is. Alex is shocked and humbled by her ignorance. The woman begins to cry and asks why Jonathan has wanted to find her. Jonathan says he wanted to find Augustine because if she had not saved his grandfather, he would never have been born. He gives her an envelope of money from his parents. Grandfather asks the woman to come to Odessa to live a better life with him.
The old woman says she is neither Augustine nor the girl in the photograph. Grandfather refuses to believe her, and his temper suddenly rises. But the woman says she knew Jonathan's grandfather, Safran, even though she does not recognize the other people in the photograph. She says they are not from Trachimbrod. She goes into the other room and returns with a box labeled "Remains." From it she produces many photographs and tells a story about each one.
When she holds up a picture of a man named Herschel, Grandfather decides to leave and tells her to shut up. She keeps talking. She says that Herschel lived in Kolki and had to shoot his best friend, Eli, in order to save himself from being shot. Grandfather yells that she is lying, and she begins to cry as she pulls out more photographs. He says she is not from Trachimbrod, even though she says she is the last survivor. Everyone was killed except for the few who escaped, and even they were not lucky. Grandfather tells the woman that someone else should have survived--she should have died. He feels tormented in her presence.
She says that she was good friends with Jonathan's grandfather, who was the first boy she ever kissed. Her mother wanted her to marry him, but she did not. She digs out a photograph of herself and Safran standing in front of the house. Safran lost a wife and two babies in the war. Alex sees that Jonathan is crying.
Alex asks the woman her mother's name, but she refuses to say it. This reminds Alex that he does not know the woman's name either, since she is not Augustine despite his wishes. She digs out a photograph of Safran and his wife Zosha in front of their house after their wedding. Jonathan asks to see the house in the photograph, but the woman tells him Trachimbrod is gone. There is only a field now. Grandfather orders the woman to take them there anyway.
The woman remembers the town every day. She remembers how Trachimbrod was like one big family. She is ashamed to have survived the war. Grandfather keeps interrupting, calling her a fool and a shameful liar. The woman asks to be alone with Grandfather, so Alex and Jonathan go outside, peel the woman's corn, and talk about America. Suddenly, Alex is ashamed to know so much about America.
Alex changes the topic to Jonathan's grandmother. When he was a child, she would always pick him up. She was actually weighing him, because when she was young she was starving and fleeing from the war, so now she wants her grandchildren to be fat. Jonathan and his grandmother used to scream long words off of her back porch for fun. They were in love with words.
Alex grabs Jonathan's diary and begins to read some fiction about Alex's family. In the tale, Alex is standing up to his father. Alex cannot decide what he feels. Finally Grandfather and the woman come out, ready to go to Trachimbrod.
Chapter 16 blends marriages from two generations. The marriage of Brod and the Kolker prefigures every wedding in the town once the Dial is erected, and in particular it prefigures that of Safran and his new wife. Safran's part of the story is full of sex, anticipation, and fertility. For their part, Brod's and the Kolker's story is also full of passion. Even so, their experience links love and violence very closely.
Again, a birth and a death occur together, although this time the situation is more complicated. One recalls the series of births of twins in Genesis that stretch the notion of the first-born: what happens if a twin comes out partially, then goes back in, and the other twin comes out first? In the present case, if someone is born just as someone dies, can the child take the person's name? It is only an issue for parents who respect the particular tradition of naming and remembrance, but the complexity of the story here implies a challenge to strict adherence to tradition.
The hole in the wall between the places where Brod and the Kolker live is a refiguration of the hole in the synagogue wall, the one through which the women had to look to see Brod when she was a child. Now Brod is the one looking through a hole at her husband, and he can look through the same hole at her. This hole is a breach in the wall; it brings two people together, while the earlier hole brought frustration and jealousy in its reminder that the women were outsiders.
The hole also represents an absence, and it serves as a reminder of absence. It therefore is conducive to love, on the ground that love is hating someone's absence more than it is loving someone's presence. The hole does much more than keep the Kolker from harming Brod. It forces the Kolker and Brod to hate one another's absence, and this is gives them a mechanism through which they are able to find love once again.
Once the Kolker dies, he is treated in the same manner as Trachim B. He becomes a symbol, and everyone makes his figure into what they wish. Even though the Kolker's marriage to Brod was full of tragedy and abuse, the men in his family now pray to him for good luck in their own marriages. His fate as a continually rebuilt statue, looking a bit different in each generation, being rebuilt in the image of each generation, shows that history and memory are malleable. To some degree we can make them what we want. In this way, truth feels less important to us than the hope for relevant meaning.
Chapter 17 marks the halfway point of the novel, if one simply counts chapters. This is the first letter in which Alex begins to tell Jonathan what he really thinks. For instance, Alex gives his point of view about intergenerational relationships. People are taught to honor their grandparents. Many people think that honoring them means keeping secrets from them as though they would not want to know the secrets. But according to Alex, to honor them is to be honest at any cost, even if it means acknowledging one's own grandparent's weakness or making them cry.
Alex becomes very bold with Jonathan in declaring that he is the one who is born to be a writer, not Jonathan. Alex feels a need to reinvent himself and his life, while he thinks that Jonathan does not. In this view, coming to terms with one's roots is not a reinvention but a discovery. But mere discovery is not what Jonathan is trying to do. Jonathan is seeking to create a history for himself and his family through creative writing.
Alex clearly still hates the fact that Jonathan's stories are so sad. This sadness violates Alex's idea of what a writer should do. He wants Jonathan to realize that a writer's responsibility is to create a better world through fantasy. This is the strongest articulation of Alex's narrative voice so far. It seems that learning how to write has developed Alex into a more mature human being.
The title of Chapter 18 encourages us to ask, Who is falling in love with whom? The theme of love in this chapter goes beyond eros or romantic love. Jonathan falls in love with his grandmother as a child, especially though the safety he feels when he is hiding beneath her skirt. Grandfather seems to fall in love with the old woman, even though he becomes very angry and rude towards her. At first, it even seems that all three of the men are falling in love with the woman, because they think she is Augustine. Even when they know she is not Augustine, the feeling endures. In truth, they are falling more deeply in love with their ideas of an older time, and with ideals rather than reality. Like Brod's, their love is "once-removed."
Even though Alex's persistence led the old woman to talk initially, it is now Grandfather who convinces her to take them to Trachimbrod. She and Grandfather have a long private conversation, and we might presume that they talk about what it is like to remember the very difficult old times. But Grandfather has had conflicting expressions of emotion, and nobody ever finds out what they have said to one another. From our perspective, they have an unspeakable bond through the past. Jonathan has come searching for Trachimbrod, and it is Grandfather, with his links to the past, who can get them there. Stubborn and cruel as he can be, Grandfather has one thing Jonathan does not: firsthand experience. Having lived through the war, he can have an intimacy and mutual understanding with the woman that Jonathan and Alex cannot.