Chapter 4: 20 July 1997
This is the first letter from Alex to Jonathan. Alex discusses the first chapter he wrote for Jonathan, which is Chapter 1 of the novel. We learn that Jonathan has asked Alex to write summaries of the trip from his own point of view. He has given Alex an English thesaurus to help him write. Thus, Alex makes awkward substitutions such as "manufacture" for "make" and "premium" for "good." Enclosed with the letter are postcards of Lutsk, census ledgers of six villages before World War II, and some photographs Jonathan asked Alex to keep for him.
We learn many things about the trip. A guard on a train stole a box from Jonathan that contained important things. The men visited six villages, but did not find the woman named Augustine. Jonathan gave Alex a copy of a picture of Augustine with her family, with which both of the young men have fallen in love.
Alex apologizes for not being a better writer and translator. Jonathan has asked him to make corrections to the first chapter. For example Jonathan has asked him to remove the phrase "very spoiled Jew" and the word "Negro" to make the text more politically correct. But Alex's revisions miss the point, and he changes "very spoiled Jew" to "spoiled Jew." Jonathan also has asked Alex to condense the part about himself.
Jonathan has sent Alex payment for his writing, which Alex accepts, but he says he would write for free because he is honored to do so for an American writer. He praises Jonathan's first chapter, our Chapter 2. He assumes that the parts he does not understand are clear only to Jews. He is somewhat correct; he does not recognize the Yiddish names. Alex claims not to know much about writing but offers to give Jonathan advice anyway.
Alex writes that Grandfather has been much more depressed since they returned from Lutsk. He has moved in with the family permanently and has taken over Little Igor's bed. He is very upset that they did not find Augustine. Alex does not discuss Grandfather's mental health with Father, though they can both hear him crying. He closes with the idea that "in a different world, we could have been real friends." He signs his letter, "Guilelessly, Alex" as he will for most of the novel.
Chapter 5: An Overture to Encountering the Hero, and then Encountering the Hero
Back to before the trip: Alex is looking forward to it, because he is excited to see new places and meet an American. Father has decided that Alex and Grandfather will make the fifteen-hour trip to Lvov. Neither of them knows what Jonathan looks like, but Alex is confident in his ability to pick out an American in Ukraine.
Unlike his family and friends, Alex is not content to stay in Odessa all his life. He wants to move to America to study accounting, and to bring Little Igor with him. But Father tells Alex that he will stay in Odessa like his ancestors and take over at Heritage Touring. When Alex retorts, Father punches him.
The dog Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior is allowed to come along on the trip, provided she wears a special shirt to make her look professional. It says: "Officious Seeing-Eye Bitch of Heritage Touring." The men do not realize that their incorrect English makes her look crude. Alex and Grandfather take their unpleasant drive to Lvov in the decrepit car, while the dog keeps throwing herself against the windows.
In contrast to Odessa, Lvov is stark, grey, and built from concrete. They are four hours early. The train station is decorated with yellow and blue flags to celebrate the first anniversary of the new constitution. Alex thinks that they will help make a good first impression on Jonathan, especially because he thinks yellow and blue are "the Jewish colors." Alex waits for Jonathan in the train station for five hours, nervous and eager to make a good impression. When Jonathan finally arrives, Alex is shocked that he resembles neither the Americans in magazines nor the Jews in Holocaust photos. Jonathan is short with brown hair, and he wears glasses. Their introduction is very awkward, as they have trouble understanding one another. Alex cannot pronounce Jonathan's name, so he calls him "Jon-fen."
Alex is surprised that Jonathan had no trouble with the guards at the Ukrainian border. They are notorious for stealing property and demanding bribes. Here Alex relays some advice Father gave him about Americans crossing the border into Ukraine. The best guard an American can encounter at the border is one who is awed by America and dreams of living there. Alex sympathizes with this point of view. The worst guard is spiteful of Americans and mistreats them to feel superior.
Alex shows Jonathan to the car, where Grandfather is snoring loudly, and the dog has chewed her shirt so that it says only "Officious Bitch." Her mouth is bloody from chewing her own tail. Jonathan shares the tiny back seat with the dog as they start off towards Lutsk and Trachimbrod.
Chapter 4 is the first letter from Alex to Jonathan. We see that they are audiences for one another, but the communications are stilted due to cultural differences and misunderstandings. When Alex does not understand something, he assumes it is because Jonathan is writing in a Jewish way, or because Jonathan is mistaken. Alex does not consider that perhaps he is mistaken himself. He plays the "culture card" to avoid questioning his own knowledge. Alex is so sure that he and Jonathan are irreconcilably different that he says they cannot be "real friends."
Despite the focus on cultural differences, we get an inkling that writing is a medium that will connect Alex and Jonathan more closely. Not only have they established a common interest in writing, but they have both fallen in love with the photograph of Augustine. In writing and in love, they can pretend for a moment that they are the same. At least, certain things make them feel the same. But so long as Alex idealistically views Jonathan as not just an American but an American writer, he perceives that they cannot write as equals or friends.
In Chapter 5 we learn about the relationships between Alex, Father, and Grandfather. Father is cruel to both his father and his son. He does not care about their opinion. Whereas Jonathan will search hopefully for his family identity, Alex knows his family all too well. The men in his family are stubborn and belligerent. Having Grandfather come along on the trip allows the contrast between Alex's and Jonathan's families to grow throughout the novel.
When Jonathan arrives, he disconfirms Alex's conceptions of Americans and of Jews. Alex expects Jonathan to look like either a cornfed blond or an emaciated death camp prisoner. This surprise introduces the recurring topic of expectations confronting realities. Once and again in the novel, people do not get what they want or expect.
The setting of Alex's and Jonathan's first encounter is important in terms of their cultural identities. They meet in a place outside of both their realms. Alex is from Odessa, where there are beaches, so he feels displaced in the city of Lvov. Jonathan is displaced, too, not least because he is in another country. Thus the two young men meet on even ground; they feel about equally awkward and lost. This situation gives them an early chance to connect, despite their differences.
Jonathan is a third-generation American, comfortable and unused to political turmoil. Alex is not a very nationalistic Ukrainian, so he does not even mention to Jonathan that the station is deocrated to celebrate the anniversary of the new Ukrainian constitution. He merely hopes Jonathan will like them. But the holiday is significant because it is a reminder of how recently politics have calmed down in Ukraine. It is still only a few years after the end of Communism. Alex is obsessed with America, because he wants to know more about its comforts. When Father punches him for wanting to leave his home country, it seems that Alex is the exception in his family in wanting to leave.