Everything is Iluminated: Chapters 23-26
Summary – Chapter Twenty Three, ‘The Wedding Reception Was So Extraordinary’ or ‘The End of the Moment That Never Ends, 1941’, Chapter Twenty Four, ‘The First Blast, and Then Love, 1941’, Chapter Twenty Five, ‘The Persnicketiness of Memory, 1941’, Chapter Twenty Six, ‘The Beginning of the World Often Comes, 1942-1791’ and A Letter (from Alex’s grandfather to Jonathan)
After having sex with the sister of the bride, Safran goes upstairs and Zosha takes his dead hand in hers, which is what she has wanted to do for months.
When the father of the bride makes a speech at the reception, Safran recognizes one of the waitresses (‘the Gypsy girl’). Under the table, she takes his good hand into hers and it is ‘possible’ that she gives him a note.
At the end of the speech there is another gust of wind and the note is blown out of his hand. It ends up in the rubbish bag and this is taken to a field on the other side of the river – ‘the field that would, soon enough, be the site of Kovel’s first mass execution’ – and burned with dozens of other bags. The note says, ‘Change’.
In Chapter Twenty Four, Safran makes love to his wife for the first time that night (on the night of the wedding) and thinks of ‘the Gypsy girl’ and how everyone but she and his mother could die ‘and he would be able to go on’. The house then shakes from a violent explosion and he has his first orgasm, and he understands he is in love.
It is explained in Chapter Twenty Five that it is another nine months, on Trachimday, before the direct Nazi assault, but from that first explosion ‘everything was different’. The Gypsies take down their tents and live uncovered. Trachimbrod is ‘overcome with a strange inertness’ and people are remembering and searching back in the past for meaning.
A shtetl meeting is held after the bombs explode and they try to talk of the implications of the news of the Nazis ‘committing unspeakable atrocities’ or of the Ukrainians ‘doing them in’. However, when people try to speak, ‘their minds would become tangled in remembrance’. After two months, the impetus of the initial terror has passed and so nothing is done and no decision is made.
The night after his wedding Safran recovers enough to wash and dress and goes back to the Dial. He talks to his great-great-great-grandfather. The Dial asks Safran about ‘the Gypsy girl’ and Safran says it is not her he loves, but his girl and it comes out that he means the baby that is now in his wife’s belly. Safran feels paralysed in the present as he is pulled between infinite pasts and infinite futures. He asks that his baby be born healthy and to be perfect.
He tells Safran how Brod cared for him even though she did not love him, and calls this love. The Dial then says how people get used to events, such as living near a waterfall as he and Brod did.
In Chapter Twenty Six, it is described how canopies of white string span the streets of Trachimbrod on March 18, 1942 as Safran and his very pregnant wife watch the floats of the parade from a picnic blanket. As the passing floats are described, so is the war where sons are ‘killed between the barbs of their own guard wire’. In an aside, the narrator (Jonathan) says how at this point it is becoming harder and harder not to yell for them to go, and run while they can.
The signal is given to the Float Queen to throw the sacks into the water. It is described how she throws them high in the air. The following page and a half are left almost empty except for the odd word or phrase. One phrase says how the Dial tiptoed and hid under the mermaid. The narrative returns to normal and the narrator says how after the bombing the Nazis move through the shtetl as they do through others before and after this. Everyone who does not drown is lined up and asked to spit on the Torah. They then put all of the Jews in the synagogue as they did in every other shtetl.
The nine volumes of The Book of Recurrent Dreams are thrown in the bonfire ‘of the Jews’ and one of the pages falls out unnoticed. This describes a dream about the end of the world. It is a stream of consciousness and appears to be by Brod as she describes a bombing. She says how ‘my Safran’ lost sight of his wife and she is carried deeper into the river by the pull of bodies. Their baby refused to die like this and is pulled up and out and comes to the surface. She would have survived but the umbilical cord pulled her back under to her mother. A mass of bodies died there as they tried to survive but drowned. The passage ends as such: ‘This is what we’ve done we’ve killed our own babies to save them.’
The novel finishes with a letter from Alex’s grandfather to Jonathan and is dated 22 January, 1998. Alex has translated it. He says how that night Sasha (Alex) told his father that he could take care of the family and would understand if he left. They ‘moved at each other with violence’ and Sasha said ‘you are not my father’. His father took a bag and put food and vodka in it, and Sasha gave him his saved money and told him to take it and never return. He told him to say it into his eyes, and Sasha did.
Iggy (Little Igor) cried all night, and told Sash he was stupid. After their father left, the narrator (Grandfather) told Sasha how proud he was. He put him to bed and then wrote this letter to Jonathan. He says he would give ‘everything’ for Sasha and Iggy to live without violence. He says they must begin again and cut all their strings, with ‘you’ (Jonathan), their father and everything they have known: ‘Sasha has started it, and now I must finish it.’
The letter and the novel ends with Alex’s grandfather saying he is ‘complete with happiness’ and this is what he ‘must do’ and will do it: ‘I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will.’
Analysis – Chapter Twenty Three, ‘The Wedding Reception Was So Extraordinary’ or ‘The End of the Moment That Never Ends, 1941’, Chapter Twenty Four, ‘The First Blast, and Then Love, 1941’, Chapter Twenty Five, ‘The Persnicketiness of Memory, 1941’, Chapter Twenty Six, ‘The Beginning of the World Often Comes, 1942-1791’ and A Letter (from Alex’s grandfather to Jonathan)
The suicide of Alex’s grandfather completes the novel as his letter is used to bring a form of closure that brings little optimism for the future. In this letter, he reasons that his grandsons must cut their ‘strings’ with ‘everything’ they have known in order to move on to a life free of violence.
This is in some ways unsatisfactory, as this appears to only echo his decision after the Second World War to remove himself from his past and start again. History and memories can never be fully repressed, as Freud argued and as
His suicide demonstrates, and this ending appears to say that this chain of mistakes will continue.