This book was on Slate’s list of Overlooked Fiction for 2006 and what sparked my interest was that it was about a painting by Marc Chagall, from its origins in a Russian orphanage during the 1920s to its theft from a New York museum. I am a huge fan of Chagall as well as Jewish themed literature (good to add some diversity to our blog) so the brief review sounded right up my alley. The book goes back and forth through the 20th century tracing the history of the Ziskind family and intertwining stories about Chagall and Der Nister, aka “The Hidden One,” who was a Yiddish author in the 1920′s.
The story begins with Boris Kulbak, the patriarch of the Ziskind family, who is living in the Jewish Boys Colony in Malakhovak, Russia after his entire family was killed in a program. There he meets a young artist, Marc Chagall, and trades him one of his sketches for a small painting by Chagall. Der Nister is also a teacher at the colony and crumples one his stories into the back of the Chagall painting. The story then jumps to the present time where Benjamin Ziskind, former child prodigy and great, great, grandson of Kulbak, steals the painting off the wall of a museum at a Jewish singles mixer. Each chapter goes back and forth between different characters of this family, different parts of the world and different periods of time in the 20th century. We hear first hand about the Russian pograms in the 20′s, the birth of Communist Russia, Vietnam in the 60′s and modern day Newark, NJ. At the same time, Horn gives us an intimate look at each of the characters and draws the reader into their trials and tribulations.
What I loved most about the book was Horn’s references to old Yiddish folktales. There are many excerpts from these stories and most of them revolve around the “next world.” She then uses these stories to interweave the character’s own philosophies:
I believe that when people die, they go to the same place as all the people who haven’t yet been born. That’s why it’s called the world to come, because that’s where they make the new souls for the future. And the reward when good people die is that they get to help make the people in their families who haven’t been born yet. They pick out what kinds of traits they want the new people to have – they give them all the raw material of their souls, like their talents and their brains and their potential. Of course it’s up to the new ones, once they’re born, what they’ll use and what won’t, but that’s what everyone who dies is doing, I think. They get to decide what kind of people the new ones might be able to become.
Isn’t that such a cool thought? These optomistic, thoughtful ideas are strewn throughout the novel. Dara Horn is not yet 30 years old and has completed her doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Harvard University. I think it’s amazing that someone so young was able to write such a deeply philosophical novel and at the same time, keep it fresh, modern and entertaining.
I could not put this book down and absolutely loved it. It is at the top of my 2006 list.