Chapter 24: Falling in Love, 1934-1941
The community remains proud of Safran's selflessness for visiting so many widows. Safran also makes love to 52 virgins, one for each position he learns from a deck of dirty cards. Thus the crippled boy has "two working hands," an actual hand and a hand of cards.
Safran does well in school, but it bores him. Half the school day is devoted to religious studies taught by an Uprighter, and the other half involves secular studies taught by a Sloucher. The schoolboys, like all the townspeople, learn the history of Trachimbrod from The Book of Antecedents. This is the same book Brod envisioned generations ago in her telescope fantasy. The book started as a log of important events, but it quickly came to include practically every detail of life in Trachimbrod. It is updated constantly. When there is nothing to add, the people write, "We are writing... We are writing... We are writing..." to make sure that the writing is continuous.
Jonathan imagines what entries his grandfather might have read in The Book of Antecedents. Some of the more notable entries include:
The Flour Mill: An explanation of its curse, according to which a man dies there every year due to God's wrath over the creation of matzoh.
Jews Have Six Senses: Jews have memory as an extra sense, which is a vivid perception of the past far in excess of what Gentiles merely remember.
The Time of Dyed Hands: Early in the shtetl's history, the rabbi dyed each person's hand a different color in order to catch a thief. A mouse turned out to be the culprit, but in the meantime everyone showed where their hands had been. The dye exposes many secrets but also results in false accusations, after people interpret something's original color as a sign that a certain person touched it.
The Novel, When Everyone Was Convinced He Had One in Him: In the mid-1800s, everyone became convinced that they could write a novel. Over seven hundred novels were written in three years. A century later, a boy looked for his great-grandfather's book in the library, knowing only that it was about love. The librarian laughed; all the books were about love.
Art/Ifice/Ifact/Artifice/Artifact/Ifactifice: All of these terms are defined in relation to one another. Art does not come from necessity or the desire to make something good. It exists only for itself. Thus, no real Art has ever been or ever will be made; the artist is always an outsider. The author of this entry wonders why we attempt to make Art anyway. Ifice is the opposite of Art, created for utility. Artifice starts out with the intention of being Art, but becomes Ifice. An Artifact is something purposeless that has been interpreted as beautiful in hindsight. It can never be Art or fact. Ifactifice is a nonsense word. Like other nonsense words, it was created in an attempt to find a new and better way of speaking.
The First Rape of Brod D: Sofiowka accosts Brod after the Trachimday parade on the day Yankel dies. He cuts off her costume with a knife. We flash forward to the scene of Yankel's death, when the Kolker appears at Brod's window. As before, she tells him, "Then you must do something for me." The next morning, Sofiowka is found hanged and mutilated on the wooden bridge. His hands have been cut off and strung from his feet. "Animal" is written across his chest in Brod's lipstick.
Plagiarism: This section claims that Cain killed Abel due to plagiarism, but Cain is the one who suffered because "God loves the plagiarist." This is because God created man in his own image, which was self-plagiarism. In essence, all people are made of the same material, and therefore plagiarism is inherent, natural, and unavoidable.
The 120 Marriages of Joseph and Sarah L: Joseph and Sarah L married each other 120 times after almost as many divorces over trivial matters. Their final marriage contract still hangs on the door of their house. It is basically a record of all the arguments that broke up their previous marriages.
The Book of Revelations: This entry acknowledges that death and darkness are a significant parts of life. Every person experiences the end of the world at least once--in dying. Was God's creation of the world only a beginning or also an end?
The Five Generations between Brod and Safran: Brod and the Kolker's first two sons die in the flour mill. Their third child lives a long life and becomes the great-great-great grandfather of Safran, Jonathan's grandfather. The names of the men between those generations are all hybrids of other names: Trachimkolker, Safranbrod, Trachimyankel, and Kolkerbrod.
Brod's 613 Sadnesses: These are divided into Sadnesses of the body, covenant, intellect, sex and art, and interpersonal sadness. According to Brod's record, almost anything can cause sadness.
The last page and a half of this chapter, and presumably of The Book of Antecedents, is the phrase "We are writing..." repeated over and over.
Chapter 25: 24 December 1997
In this letter, Alex writes to Jonathan that they are now working as a team but should not send critiques of each other's work. They are becoming the characters about whom they write--they are even becoming one another. They can give each other the safety and peace for which they both long.
The previous night, Alex as usual went to the beach instead of a nightclub, because he is saving up for a ticket to America. Nightclubs make him feel sad and abandoned, but on the beach, he imagined a painted white line connecting him to Jonathan. Grandfather walked up to Alex on the beach, and it is the first time Alex can remember that the two of them were alone together, without distraction. Grandfather asked to borrow money from Alex to find Augustine, but Alex said it would be a fruitless search. He asked if Grandfather wanted to do so because of Herschel, and Grandfather's silence implied that the answer was yes. He insisted on going alone and told Alex to keep his plans a secret.
This episode is very meaningful for Alex; finally they are bonded by something. But Alex is not sure what to do, because helping Grandfather fulfill his quest would leave Alex without money to move himself and Little Igor to America. He asks for Jonathan's advice, even though he knows the advice will not reach him in time. Letter writers converse in "misplaced time." For Alex, he now has something of real value, a genuine choice between his own goals and Grandfather's. Alex ends his letter with the claim that Jonathan is the only person who has ever understood him at all, and he is the same for Jonathan.
The Book of Antecedents is a wonderful expression of the author's creative humor, illuminating deeper truths. One entry claims that Jews have an unusually keen sense of memory. This claim would be supported by the fact that the book exists in the first place. Trachimbrod is obsessed with recording every detail of its history. The instinct among the townspeople to preserve is as great as their instinct to create. For them, "We are writing..." is synonymous with "We are alive..."
The story of the dye is yet another example of how fantasy and reality can become indistinguishable. The world is so colorful, so embellished, that the people lose their keenness of sight when each color is restricted to represent an individual. Every object becomes a symbol of human influence, and the people can no longer tell the truth from the fantasy, the original from the presumed embellishment.
The entries on Art/Ifice/Ifact/Artifice/Artifact/Ifactifice debate patterns of writing and interpretation. Writing is often self-aware; that is, a lot of writing is about other writing or the act of writing itself. Like Rivka, who buries her ring, people want to be remembered. They leave writing behind as proof of existence, and they endlessly debate its meaning.
When we finally read the story of Brod's rape, much of the earlier narrative is explained. But we are left with mystery in that we do not know for sure that the Kolker killed Sofiowka alone. He and Brod might have done it together. We also do not know for sure whether the light in Brod's belly, a pregnancy, is from Sofiowka or the Kolker.
The entry on plagiarism exposes the manic individualism of the American academy, where everything must either be entirely one's own or properly cited. Older American traditions, and the traditions of other cultures' narrative communities, often emphasize the universal character of human expressions. The past lives in the present, and we do ourselves a service rather than commit a crime when we recover a past achievement for ourselves. In this, apparently even God is on our side.
The book's name, The Book of Antecedents, deserves consideration in its own right. Everything in the book is an antecedent, even the deaths and violence; after tragedies, life kept moving on and people kept writing. Again, ends can serve as beginnings, just as each divorce between Joseph and Sarah L gives them the ground for a new marriage contract. The world does not end with us, as Yankel wished. It goes on, and it is our responsibility to create lights bright enough to reach far into the future.
Chapter 25 is Alex's penultimate letter, and it is clear that he has come into his own. In claiming that he and Jonathan have become one voice, he has humanized Jonathan as a writer and decided that the two of them are now peers. Alex's new maturity also enables him to share a signficant connection with Grandfather for the first time.
When Grandfather asks Alex for money, Alex is very quick to decide he can forgo his own dream of leaving for America. He is awed by the responsibility that lies in his choice. He asserted earlier that it is the grandchild's responsibility to come to terms with the grandparent, and he now has his chance to fulfill his duty. In addition, perhaps in his new maturity and his greater willingness to stand up to his father, Alex no longer needs America now that he feels more at home in Ukraine.