Chapter 22: 12 December 1997
In a letter, Alex tells Jonathan that he is translating the novel for Little Igor as Jonathan sends chapters. This brings the brothers together and makes them laugh. Grandfather cannot look Alex in the eye anymore. He still wishes Father were gone.
Alex explains that his latest chapter was the most difficult so far to compose. He has been avoiding the issue of Grandfather "pointing at" Herschel. But he claims that Jonathan has taught him to be honest in his writing, even at the expense of dignity. For instance, he can barely believe the things Jonathan writes about his grandfather's sexual exploits, especially considering their immorality. Could Jonathan write like this if his grandfather were alive? If not, why not? And why do women love Safran's crippled arm so much? Do they want to feel superior to him, overpower him, or be close to death by being close to his arm?
Jonathan has advised Alex to remove the section where Jonathan talks about memories of his grandmother, but Alex resolutely refuses. Alex now returns to the issue of mixing truth with fantasy in writing. How can Jonathan write the way he does, or demand that Alex alter or omit facts? If this is allowed, then why not choose to make a fantastical account a happy one? Alex complains that the trip already seems too ordinary instead of triumphant. He wants to embellish it as Jonathan does with his family history. He even suggests that Grandfather could have saved Jonathan's grandfather from the Nazis: "I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem."
Chapter 23: What We Saw When We Saw Trachimbrod, or Falling in Love
Alex, Jonathan, and Grandfather continue to think of the old woman as Augustine. She has never been in a car before, and she is too scared. Instead, she walks to the site where Trachimbrod once stood, resting frequently. The men drive behind her very slowly. They stop to let her rest in the front seat when she is tired.
As she rests in the front seat, the woman asks Grandfather if he has any children. Alex is proud when he introduces Alex as the oldest son of his oldest son. Then the woman asks if Alex and Jonathan have any children. When Alex asks her if she has any children, Grandfather shoots him a nasty look. She says she has a baby girl.
The woman leads them through many fields and forests, and darkness falls. In the dark she looks like a ghost leading the way. They stop in the middle of an empty field flanked with trees, where they can hear the sound of water. The woman announces that they have reached Trachimbrod.
Jonathan cannot believe her, so she explains how Trachimbrod was destroyed in one day. The Nazis came and burned the synagogue. Then they made all the men of the town line up. They unrolled a Torah scroll, and the Nazi General commanded that each man spit on it, or his family would be killed. Grandfather protests that this is a lie, but the woman insists that it is true. She says that the first few men obeyed, but when her father refused to desecrate the Torah, the General killed his wife and daughter. Jonathan says he does not want to hear any more. He walks away to fill bags with soil for his grandmother, should he ever tell her about his trip.
Meanwhile, Alex and Grandfather hear the rest of the story. When the General set his gun upon the woman's older sister, who was pregnant, her father again refused to spit. The General shot her in the womb, leaving her bleeding and in agony, but not dead. Again he demanded that her father spit on the Torah, but he refused again. Instead of killing the older sister (as reported above), they left her to suffer. Finally, they killed her father. The woman's older sister crawled away, but none of the Gentiles in the town would help her.
Grandfather asks the woman if she can forgive the Gentiles. She says she cannot. Grandfather says he could, because their families' lives were also at stake should they help a Jew. The woman tells him he does not know what he is saying.
Her older sister eventually crawled into the forest and went unconscious. She awoke to find that her baby was dead, but she was clearly alive. She followed the trail of her own blood back to Trachimbrod. The Nazis were gone. She gathered all the Jews' belongings, pried the gold fillings from the corpses' teeth, and cut their hair--to save it all from scavenging neighbors. The woman's sister bought the house in which the woman now lives, and she lived there with all the Jews' belongings until she died. She has considered this tragic load of memorials her punishment for surviving.
Before they leave Trachimbrod, the woman leads them to the monument that proves the existence of the massacre. The commemorative monument was dedicated by the Prime Minister of Israel, and it is engraved in Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, Polish, Yiddish, English, and German. Grandfather and the woman walk off, leaving Alex and Jonathan to lie under the stars.
They return to the woman's house. She tells them that she last saw Jonathan's grandfather a few years after the war, when he had returned to Trachimbrod. They got into a terrible argument over Hamlet.
She says that Jonathan resembles his grandfather before the war. She tells them that there are very few Jews remaining in the area. They are too old or too scarred to share any information. Grandfather again invites the woman to live in Odessa, but she refuses.
She gives Jonathan a box labeled "In Case," as well as her friend Rivka's wedding ring, which Rivka hid before she died. Jonathan posits that Rivka hid the ring so that there would be proof she existed. The woman argues more broadly that Rivka saved the ring in case someone came looking for Trachimbrod someday. She says: "The ring does not exist for you. You exist for the ring. The ring is not in case of you. You are in case of the ring." The ring will not fit on Jonathan's finger, and the woman cuts him trying to make it fit.
Before they leave, Alex asks the woman her name. She says it is Lista. Then she asks him if the war is over. Grandfather kisses her on the lips. She walks back to her house, saying that her baby needs her.
Alex's opinions about Jonathan's writing and writing in general are crystallizing and becoming more sophisticated. He is becoming a writer. He has revealed something of his true self to Jonathan, including his feelings toward Grandfather, his love of sitting on the beach, and his love for Little Igor above all things. He is a much more passionate writer, now that he has dropped his pretenses and focused on telling the truth. At the same time, he now cannot stand to see Jonathan suggesting the slightest pretense. Jonathan suggests that Alex should remove elements that embarrass or scare him, but these choices seem to violate the principle of telling the truth. First, Jonathan wanted Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, cut, and now he asks that the stories about his grandmother be cut. He does not say it outright, but Alex thinks these suggestions by Jonathan are cowardly. But an author cannot include all details of every situation, so the question of authenticity turns on decisions about which details deserve to be remembered and told.
But in accepting this narrow end of the wedge, Alex concludes that "I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem." Thus he articulates the difference between his and Jonathan's writing goals. Alex is still eager to embellish his stories about the present, while Jonathan embellishes the past in order to deepen his account of its underlying truth. Alex is still naive as a writer, but at least he is now a writer. He considers Jonathan inconsistent, even hypocritical, with regard to the use of fantasy. He does not yet see how myths can express deeper truths. Still, as the two writers develop and exchange their own voices, they are working together to create one narrative. They may have to resolve this conflict about the role of fantasy in order to reach synthesis in their common project.
Lista's story reintroduces two of the novel's greatest themes: guilt and responsibility, and fantasy. Lista suffers a terrible tragedy during the Holocaust, but she survives. But rather than regarding her survival as a miracle, she is filled with guilt. She punishes herself for her own survival, just as Grandfather punishes himself for his (though his survival is more complicated). Because there are no other people to be responsible for, she directs her responsibility towards objects and an imaginary child. She catalogues and guards them in the obsessive manner in which the people of Trachimbrod once protected their dreams and their lives.
As important as objects are to Lista, it is the lack of objects at the site of Trachimbrod that hits Jonathan with such weight. The commemorative object has come from elsewhere. Jonathan collects dirt, as though to chronicle the nothingness that the shtetl has become, though dirt is also a symbol of possibility in that soil provides for life, and it is a powerful remembrance of the land that Jonathan can bring back for his grandmother.
Fantasy and reality are now intertwined so delicately within the narrative that they are very difficult to untangle. Lista tells the story of her own near-death and survival as though it is her older sister's, as the reader gradually realizes that the story is about herself. She also refuses to believe that her baby is dead. Lista is living a life once-removed from her own pain. She does not have to face her agony of the Nazi atrocities so long as she pretends they affected her sister rather than herself.
The novel leads us to infer that Lista is the woman whose virginity Safran took. We know that Jonathan invents the story of Lista and Safran after having met Lista. Therefore, he chose to give them this particular relationship on the basis of the story told by Lista. If nothing else, this development satisfies our interest in connecting events and illuminating mysteries. After all, it is tantalizing to think that Lista's baby, whom the Nazis shot, was conceived with Safran. The author provides us with the ability to make this inference without giving us irrefutable evidence. If fantasy is always an acceptable choice for the author, can we ever be sure that any part of the narrative is true, including the deeper mythic reality of the narrative? The author empowers us as readers to use our own imagination, to decide for ourselves whether or not we will believe in the author's version of the truth.