Languages fade from tongue and memory. Stories are lost. Do we have a right or a duty to tell them?
Dara Horn’s The World to Come is a sprawling family saga that encompasses the persecution of Jews after the Russian Revolution, the confusion of Vietnam, the disaster of Chernobyl and modern day terrorism, as well as personal struggle, love and tragedy. It might seem like a heavy read, but, thanks to a sense of humor and a penchant for magic realism derived from Jewish folktales, it never gets ponderous. The book begins with Benjamin Ziskind, a former wunderkind that has lost his edge after the death of his mother, a children’s book illustrator who immigrated from the Soviet Union as a child. Ziskind lives on autopilot, writing questions for a TV quiz show that he despises. His life is changed when he attends a singles cocktail hour at the New York Jewish Museum, only to find that a painting that once hung in his living room, a study by the famous artist Marc Chagall, is on display there. Out of a sense of ownership and a desire to reclaim his life, he takes the painting off of the wall and goes home with it, setting in motion a chain of events, rooted in the past, that will create for him a very different future.
“There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything.”
Hooking our attention, Horn takes us on a journey into the lives of Benjamin and his remarkable family, hopping back and forth in time between three generations, snatching at threads of commonality in an attempt to understand the theft. History is interwoven with fiction. We meet the painter Marc Chagall and the writer Pinchas Kahanovich, known as Der Nister, the Hidden One. These two men are teachers at the Malakhovka Jewish Colony for orphaned boys in the 1920s, when Boris Kulbak, Benjamin’s paternal grandfather, is a student. The ripples that begin with their friendship will shape the future of Boris and his descendants. While Chagall is fated to drift far away into a cloud of popularity and global recognition, Der Nister stays in a Russia that is increasingly intolerant of Judaism. His beautiful, witty stories become a target for a government that seeks to “purify” Soviet culture. Between the Nazis and the Russian Bolsheviks, the pinnacle of Yiddish art and thought was quickly reduced to poverty and ruin, their lives and their stories burned from memory. But there are always witnesses.
“Days and hours and years are not time, but merely vessels for it, and too often they are empty. The world stands still, timeless and empty, until an act of generosity changes it in an instant and sends it soaring through arcs of rich seasons, moment after spinning moment of racing beauty. And then, with a single unkind deed, a single withheld hand, time ceases to exist.”
The generosity of the Kulbaks and Ziskinds: their love for one another, their responsibility to their friends and the sincere desire to do right do not save them from pain. In fact, it is usually these things that bring on their deaths. They are most often too honest, cheerfully sharing with enemies the very information that will leave them vulnerable to attack. When they are rewarded by society, it’s often for something they owe to someone else, something borrowed or even stolen, such as a piece of art or a story. But, as far as personal kindness goes, the family has riches, especially when it comes in contact with others who don’t quite fit in to the world around them.
Ownership is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to stories. A painting is corporeal and is thus owned by possession, typically confirmed by purchase. And yet, there is something to be said for its “image”, which can be reproduced on other objects or in the mind itself and thus “owned” in a different way. A story is much less tangible. It may not even be written down, and, when it is, it is but a copy. A story begins with an author working from a particular world view and a particular culture, but it belongs to those who embrace it, outgrowing the author and, to some extent, the culture that birthed it.
The World to Come is full of beginnings, but what Horn does not give us are endings, which she prefers to leave in shadow for us to piece together by context. If you want a neat and tidy resolution to this story, you will not find it. The fate of Benjamin is left hanging on the reader’s interpretation of the words “the world to come”. It’s a very gutsy choice and will not suit everyone’s taste, although those who enjoy ambiguity will adore it. Throughout the novel, when truth becomes too painful, we find refuge in mythology presented in the form of Yiddish folktales by Moyshe Nadir, Mani Leib, I.L. Peretz, Nachman of Breslov, Sholem Aleichem, Itsik Manger and Der Nister himself. These stories show through the plot of the novel like ancient wallpaper. It is the brilliance of these parables that creates the atmosphere and structure of the novel– binding gloomy realism with hopeful flights of fantasy and hope.
The world is made poorer by the loss of folktales, which is the loss of memory itself. Yiddish communities were broken and scattered across the globe. Keeping the old language became too difficult and, in some cases, too painful, for many. It would be worthwhile if The World to Come only brought attention to these stories. Horn does more. She adds her own handiwork, showing how the Yiddish culture continues in the modern Jewish voice and what it can teach us about kindness and compassion.