Chapter 9: 23 September 1997
In this letter from Alex to Jonathan, we learn that Jonathan is in his last year of college, while Alex has two more to go. Jonathan told Alex that one is obligated to go after one's dreams, but Alex supposes that this is easier for someone fortunate like Jonathan than for him. He tells Jonathan that he has saved up almost enough money for a ticket to America by forgoing the clubs. He asks for another copy of the picture of Augustine for Grandfather, who now is too depressed even to yell. Alex thinks she is beautiful and agrees with Jonathan that it is easy to fall in love with her.
Alex responds to Jonathan's criticism about the last chapter he wrote (our Chapter 5). Alex thinks Jonathan does not like this chapter as much as the first one he wrote; Jonathan has corrected some of Alex's idioms. Jonathan asked Alex to retain the other incorrect words because they are funny, but Alex is ashamed and wants to correct them.
Alex compliments Jonathan's latest chapter on The Book of Recurrent Dreams. He says that "the dream that we are our fathers" upsets him, because he wants to be the opposite of Father. Still, Father is not all bad. He gave Little Igor a bicycle for his recent fourteenth birthday.
Alex returns to his own work, telling Jonathan that he did not omit Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior from the story as Jonathan requested. Jonathan thought removing the dog would make the story more "refined," but Alex wants to give her a chance as a character.
Chapter 10: Going Forth to Lutsk
As Jonathan and his crew set out for Lutsk, the dog will not leave him alone. He cannot stand this situation, especially because he does not like dogs. They get lost, and Grandfather is increasingly upset. He swears and says impolite things about Jonathan in Russian. Alex pretends to translate, telling Jonathan that Grandfather is pointing out the landscape. Jonathan tells Alex that the dog has converted to Judaism. When Alex translates for Grandfather, he is disgusted and calls the dog "Dean Martin, Junior" instead.
They drive for five hours, and Jonathan tells Alex about his intentions. He shows Alex a photograph of his grandfather with Augustine and the family who saved him from the Nazis. His grandfather's name was Safran, like his ancestor Safran/Yankel. Everyone else in Trachimbrod reportedly was killed, including his wife and child, while Safran escaped. Alex thinks that Augustine is beautiful and looks American instead of Ukrainian. He also thinks she looks sad and intelligent. Jonathan tells Alex he wants to see where his grandfather grew up. He points out that if it were not for World War II, his grandfather never would have moved to America, and Jonathan would have lived in Trachimbrod as a Ukrainian. The back of the photo says, "This is me with Augustine, February 21, 1943." This is why Jonathan thinks the girl's name is Augustine. Jonathan admits that it is possible the note has nothing to do with the girl--it could have been used as scrap paper. Despite this, both he and Alex think that Safran was in love with Augustine. There is a closeness and a tension between the two in the photo.
But Jonathan does not want to believe that the two were in love, which would mean that even true love is replaceable, because his grandfather wed again and started a new life in America. Jonathan's grandmother gave him the photograph only after his grandfather died--she would not say anything about it. She does not like Ukraine, and Jonathan has not told his grandmother that he is traveling to Ukraine because of her painful past. As a young woman she left her family behind in her shtetl, Kolki. Later, they were killed by the Nazis. Alex is taken by the fact that she left her family behind and resolves to remember it.
Jonathan adds that the Ukrainians were cruel to the Jews during World War II, Nazis or not. Jonathan shows Alex the few maps he has of the area where they will search for Augustine. The maps and photograph are the only aids Jonathan has. Alex explains everything about Augustine, the photograph, and the maps to Grandfather. He shows Grandfather the photograph.
At the hotel, the hotel clerk demands to see Jonathan's documents and charges him a "foreigner price" even though Alex is there. At dinner, Grandfather examines the photograph of Augustine in a way that makes Alex uncomfortable. Jonathan does not eat meat, but the waitress does not comprehend this choice and insists that there must also be meat on the plate. The dog is humping the table, which has caused one of Jonathan's two potatoes to fall on the very dirty floor. There is a tense moment. Finally Grandfather picks up the potato, cuts it in four, and gives a piece to each of the men and to the dog. He eats some of his piece first and tells Jonathan, "Welcome to Ukraine." After Alex translates it, all three of them laugh, and Alex perceives that each of them is laughing for his own reason.
Alex asks Jonathan about America and says he wants to be an accountant. Jonathan refuses to call himself a writer, since he has not published a book yet. Still, Alex is encouraging and thinks of Jonathan as a writer. Jonathan explains that his goals are not lofty; he just wants to do something of which he is not ashamed.
They return to the hotel, where Alex warns Jonathan that people often steal from and kidnap Americans. Grandfather and Alex go to the hotel bar to drink vodka. Grandfather is unusually calm and good-spirited, and says that Jonathan "is a good boy" worth helping. They agree to wake up at six o'clock. Grandfather is tossing and turning all night, and Alex cannot sleep either. He knows that it is because both of them are thinking about what Grandfather did during World War II. Alex does not know, but he realizes that the memory makes Grandfather restless.
In Chapter 9, Alex begins to be more honest with Jonathan in his letter. He admits that saving up to come to America is far more important to him than his putatively swinging lifestyle in Odessa. He also begins to assert some editorial prerogative, refusing to omit Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior from the story. At this point, he is still looking to Jonathan for guidance and praise. He still thinks Jonathan is the key to his making a name for himself.
In Chapter 9, we also confront the issue of Jonathan the author vs. Jonathan the character. We learn that Jonathan the character wants Alex to make him look more calm and refined in his writing. Meanwhile, Jonathan the author chooses to show how insecure Jonathan the character is, always leaving us unsure to what degree the author is like the character. We read not only about the character's anxiety, but about how he is anxious about his anxiety. In a sense, the author may be humbling himself through the features of the character.
We still do not know anything about Augustine. She has a unique influence on each person; each imagines her in a different way. So long as they do not meet her, she exists in the realm of fantasy and not history. While this acknowledgment can be disappointing for them, it is also safe; no evidence is available to challenge their fantasies. If she never evinces her reality, she will never become a disappointment.
Chapter 10 introduces the topic of loyalty to one's family and country. It also points out how identity can change rapidly from generation to generation. Alex begins with some incorrect notions about Jews, while Grandfather is quite rude about the fact that Jonathan is Jewish. It is for this reason that Alex does not translate Jonathan's comments about the cruelty of Ukrainians during the Holocaust. Jonathan has been culturally insensitive in the course of being honest about his understanding of Jewish history. He forgets that Grandfather lived through the war and could be offended by his allegations.
Humor continues to cut through the cultural tension and misunderstanding. In Chapter 10, the humor is no longer simply ironic, for the benefit of readers; the men appreciate it among themselves. When the potato falls to the floor, the response "Welcome to Ukraine" leads all the men to laugh. They laugh for different reasons, because they are different people with different experiences of Ukraine, but they share a common understanding: a quartered, dirty potato shared with a dog is somehow appropriate to their feelings of cultural awkwardness in communicating with one another, and somehow touchingly appropriate to their shared experience of the friendships they are forming. In essence they all appreciate the difficulty of their situation. The humor places them all on the same level for the moment, and the tension subsides.
Jonathan's articulation of his goal illuminates the topics of shame and responsibility. He does not want to become famous or proud but to avoid shame. While this may be a low bar to set, one might wonder if the author is referring to all the shameful, moneygrubbing jobs that a humanistic writer would avoid. It is also important to remember that Jonathan comes from a family of Holocaust survivors, and whatever he does will seem tiny compared to what his relatives went through in order to survive.
Chapter 10 also introduces us to the mystery of Grandfather's past. He becomes much more friendly to Jonathan once he sees the photograph of Augustine. Suddenly the trip has meaning for him; he wants to find Augustine and is encouraging about the task even when Jonathan is not around. We are left to wonder whether Grandfather knows Augustine or is just touched by her beauty.