Chapter 26: An Overture to Illumination
Grandfather, Alex, and Jonathan return to their hotel. Grandfather insists that Jonathan open the box marked "In Case." The men take turns reaching into the box without looking, pulling out objects. Grandfather pulls out an old, stained pearl necklace that looks like it was once buried. It reminds him of a pearl necklace he bought Grandmother, in which she was buried. Alex pulls out a world map from 1791, which seems like a simpler age to him. Jonathan pulls out a volume labeled The Book of Past Occurrences. He turns to a page at random and reads--it is the story of The Time of Dyed Hands, and the book is actually The Book of Antecedents.
At this point, Alex asks Jonathan something strange: he asks him to save Grandfather from what will happen to him two paragraphs later. He begs Jonathan to write the rest of the chapter for him, because he cannot bear to. However, he keeps writing.
Grandfather pulls a photograph out of the box and puts it down without looking at it. Jonathan examines it and is shocked. One of the men in the photograph looks exactly like Alex. With him are another man, a woman, and a baby. They hand the photograph to Grandfather. He seems amused by the photograph, and agrees that the man looks like Alex. In fact, it is himself. The photograph was taken in Kolki before the war. It turns out that Grandfather is from Kolki, not Odessa. This is the same shtetl from which Jonathan's grandmother fled. He says he does not want to know Jonathan's grandmother's name. Grandfather says, "I am not a bad person. I am a good person who has lived in a bad time." The woman in the photograph is indeed Grandmother. She is holding a baby, who is Father. The man standing next to Grandfather is his best friend, the Jew named Herschel, whom Grandfather murdered.
Chapter 27: Falling in Love, 1934-1941
Seven months after they made love for the last time, the Gypsy girl commits suicide and Safran marries Zosha. During the seven years they were lovers, they adored their time together. They often made love in the petrified forest. Their lovemaking was flirtatious, unlike Safran's sad lovemaking with widows. They could never be affectionate in public because she was a Gypsy and he was a Jew. They were more than lovers, too; they knew each other very well. One night as they lay in the forest and the Nazis were advancing, they thought about their futures. He would make notes for her out of letters clipped from newspaper articles about the war, while she would carve notes for him into trees. They were one another's only friends, and they shared with each other their deepest secrets. Safran took the Gypsy girl to the Dial and told her the story of Trachim B and Brod's life. He made her promise to help him write it down someday. On the day they made love for the last time, Safran told the Gypsy girl that his parents had arranged for him to marry Zosha, whom he has never met. From then on, they pretended not to know one another. One day, he found her leaving his house. She says, "Your books are arranged by the color of their spines. How stupid." He went to Lista's house for comfort.
Safran wanted to make love to Lista, but she found the prospect unattractive; the whole appeal for her was not being able to have him in his incompleteness, with his bad arm. Before he left, she gave him a copy of Hamlet.
We flash farther back to the first time Safran and the Gypsy girl made love. They guide one another's hands over their own bodies. Then we flash forward to the day when the Nazis bombed Trachimbrod. Safran has his first orgasm. Somewhere else, the Gypsy girl slits her wrist with the same knife she used to use to carve notes into the trees.
Chapter 28: 26 January 1997
In this letter, Alex breaks his promise not to critique Jonathan's writing. He is angry that Safran and the Gypsy girl cannot be happy together. He says that in his version of the story, Safran would take her to America, or at least kill himself so that Jonathan would never be born to write such sad things. He calls Jonathan and all his relatives cowards, because they all live in a world that is "once-removed," like Brod. All of them turn down love and the chance to be happy. As for himself, Alex understands what Jonathan is trying to convey about life's frustration; he often chooses to go against what he wants. He has given up his dream of taking Little Igor to America, and he wishes he could simply choose to be happy.
Alex did not give Grandfather the money after all, since Grandfather did not really want to find Augustine but Herschel, Grandmother, and others--people he never would have been able to find. Grandfather died four days earlier, having slit his wrists in the bathtub.
Alex finally told Father how he really feels, and he is now doing the same with Jonathan, for real this time. He asks for Jonathan's forgiveness. For the first time, Alex signs his letter "Love" instead of "Guilelessly."
After so many clues about Grandfather, the dark mystery is illuminated at last. In Chapter 26, Grandfather's past and the whole dynamic in Alex's family comes to light suddenly, but the tension leading to this release has been building throughout the novel. Like the pearl necklace, the story is unearthed, brought from its box from obscurity into bright daylight. Like Lista, Grandfather has had to be prodded time and again until he cannot bear to hold his secret any longer.
Without realizing it, Jonathan and Alex have accomplished their task as the younger generation. They have led the older generation to reveal the past so that it can be passed down into the future. They may not have found Augustine, but they have found Grandfather.
Chapter 27 is again a chapter called Falling in Love, and again we are not sure where the love is. Do Safran and the Gypsy girl love one another romantically or only as close friends who sleep together? Is there a difference? Part of their flirtation involves joking that they do not love one another after all.
The lovers communicate through writing, which gives expressions of their love an endurance that can last far longer than the relationship itself. Safran cuts his love notes out of the war headlines, which symbolizes the danger of their love and forebodes that it will end. The Gypsy girl, identified with nature, cuts her notes into trees. Just as the war tears them apart, their cultural differences prevent them from being together.
The lovers return to the petrified forest often. Petrified wood is neither good for paper nor good for cutting love notes with a knife, yet this kind of wood will endure long after memories of the town have disappeared. The forest bears silent witness to their time together. The forest is a haven, precisely because it is dead. There are no interruptions or surprises; all the activity is their own. But like the forest, their love is stagnant; it cannot grow and cannot enter the city or public life. Like Brod and Yankel, Safran never really gets what he wants.
Chapter 28 is Alex's last letter. Here his honesty comes to its climax. Alex has learned about love from Jonathan, even though he says Jonathan and his whole family are incapable of really loving or getting what they want. As Alex has told Jonathan, to love and honor someone means telling them the truth. This is what he did for Grandfather, even at the risk of having it kill him--which it did.
For the first and only time, he signs his letter, "Love, Alex." In expressing the love of friendship or philia for Jonathan, Alex is expressing his anger and his joy, his gratefulness and his frustration. Their book chapters have shown that love is richly charged with opposing emotions and dangers. It is fitting that Alex signs his letter with love after he has risked everything by standing up to his father and to Jonathan, too.