Everything is Iluminated: Chapters 16-17
Summary – Chapter Sixteen, ‘The Dupe of Chance, 1941-1924’, Chapter Seventeen, ‘The Thickness of Blood and Drama, 1934’ and A Letter (from Jonathan to Alex)
Chapter Sixteen continues on from Chapter Fifteen and Safran and his bride’s sister make love.
The narrator, Jonathan, then says how the first thing he noticed about his grandfather’s baby portrait is his teeth, and that his great-grandmother looks pained (from breastfeeding him). Jonathan thinks of these teeth as the reason that he was ‘pulled prematurely from his mother’s well’ and so did not receive the nutrients his body required. Because of this, his right arm withered. This is why he never worked in the flour mill, but worked in the tannery instead, and why he was made exempt from the draft. His arm also saved him as it stopped him swimming back to Trachimbrod to save ‘his only love’ ‘(who died in the river with the rest of them)’. It also stopped him drowning himself and saved him as it caused Augustine to fall in love with him. It also prevented him from boarding the New Ancestry which was turned back by orders of the United States Immigration officials ‘and whose passengers would all eventually perish in the Treblinka death camp’.
Jonathan also thinks it is because of his arm that he had the power to make any woman he met fall in love with him – including more than 40 women in Trachimbrod – and the first woman he had sex with was Rose (and he was aged 10). The chapter ends with a reference to how on June 18th, 1941, the ‘first German war blasts’ came to the shtetl.
In Chapter Seventeen, it is explained how, as he was growing up, Safran’s parents were pleased about him visiting and helping feeble and widowed ladies of the area. They did not know he was having sex with them.
Safran never spoke of this and never wrote of his lovers in his journal. Jonathan thinks this is because he did not want people to think less of him. This journal is the only written record he has of his life before he met his grandmother in a displaced persons’ camp after the war.
Jonathan considers that his grandfather knew that ‘by love’s definition’ it is impossible to love two people, so, in an aside, Jonathan tells Alex that this is why he cannot tell his grandmother about Augustine.
The second woman Safran had sex with was a young widow called Lista P who he met at a play and who was one of many other women to be overcome with the sight of his dead arm. He understood later that the ‘tears of blood’ she left on her sheets were a sign of her virginity. Her husband had died as he went to the Dial on the morning of his wedding.
He also describes Safran at a play again, which is about Trachim’s wagon going into the River Brod in 1791, while sitting with a ‘Gypsy girl’ and how he goes on to have a relationship with her.
In a letter from Alex to Jonathan, dated 12 December 1997, Alex reports how he and his brother have been reading the writing that Jonathan sends them. He then says how this next ‘division’ is the most difficult he has written so far. He also asks how can he write about his grandfather doing things such as having sex with his bride’s sister and with an aged woman.
He then says how they are both ‘nomads with the truth’ and could even have his grandfather save Jonathan’s: ‘I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem.’
Analysis – Chapter Sixteen, ‘The Dupe of Chance, 1941-1924’, Chapter Seventeen, ‘The Thickness of Blood and Drama, 1934’ and A Letter (from Jonathan to Alex)
Alex’s argument that he does not think there are ‘any limits to how excellent we could make life seem’ is a telling one as it proposes that fiction may be used to improve history. This outlook is understandable given that he demonstrates he feels a protectiveness for his and Jonathan’s grandfathers, but when one considers these narratives are at least partly engaging with the Holocaust then his point is also negligible. At this point, the truth for Alex appears to be less preferable than the desire to use fiction to make life seem more ‘excellent’. However, as Jonathan and Alex both later demonstrate, the ghastly decisions forced on their forebears should be explored and revealed. It is of course ironic that these are fictionalized truths that are revealed.