The story of three generations of the Ziskind family is told in alternating chapters with a unique twist: we also see them in their pre-natal and post-natal existence in Paradise. Members of a family who have died literally help to shape the characteristics of those who are yet to be born. This charming tale tinged with tragedy is more sophisticated than it might seem, and provides a captivating way to think about loved ones who are no longer among the living.
As the novel begins, Ben Ziskind, a lonely, 30-year-old divorced, skinny, legally blind genius has just stolen a Chagall painting from the Museum of Hebraic Art in New Jersey. Ben and his sister Sara, although twins, are quite different: Ben focuses on trivia – he writes questions for the quiz show American Genius. Sara is an artist and sees the world in broad patterns and colors that elude Ben. In fact, this book is all about what is seen versus what is hidden. One of the characters is even named The Hidden One (“Der Nister” in Yiddish). (This is the real-life Yiddish writer Pinkhas Kahanovitch, a friend of Chagall who hid many of his manuscripts behind Chagall’s canvasses, since writing on any subject but “socialist realism” was forbidden in Stalin’s Russia.)
Ben steals the painting because he recognizes it as belonging to his family. It was given to his grandfather Boris by Chagall himself.
Boris was orphaned at age ten by the pogroms that swept Russia from 1918-1921 killing over 150,000 Jews. Chagall and Kahanovitch were teachers at his orphanage. [In an Afterword, in which the author discusses the historical events that inform the plot, she observes that the orphanage at which Chagall and Der Nister taught was a veritable avant-garde artists’ colony. Practically all of them but Chagall would later be exterminated by Stalin.]
Chagall left for Europe, and freedom, but Der Nister and his family stayed in Russia. When Der Nister’s beloved daughter Hodele died, he wrote a letter to God that is a wonderful expression of his grief delivered in a veil of sarcasm:
“To the Eternal (may the name of your honored majesty be blessed forever and ever):
Forgive me for interrupting your divine and important work. I hope you will grant me the gift of your mercy and be particularly forgiving of my interrupting you at this juncture in the history of our world. It is my humble assumption that you are presently involved in extremely essential, unfathomably life-sanctifying creative endeavors that we shall all (may it be your will) be privileged to witness in the near future, speedily and in our time – for I cannot otherwise explain your current absence from the face of the earth.”
Boris grew up and had his own family, and his daughter Rosalie married Daniel. They became the parents of Ben and Sara. Rosalie and Daniel are dead as the book begins, although their stories are told in subsequent chapters. The painting and the stories of Der Nister stuffed behind it were passed down through the generations.
Rosalie wrote and illustrated Jewish folk tales, although the stories were actually adapted from Der Nister and other Yiddish artists who had been murdered by Stalin. She wanted to make sure that their stories would not be “hidden” forever. The last picture book she published before she died was called “The World to Come.” As it turns out, “The World to Come” is also the name of the mandatory lecture series in Paradise attended by those not yet born. And “the world to come” is what Rosalie and Daniel, in Paradise, identify to their grandson-to-be as “the world, in the future, as you create it.”
So many of the choices made to create “the world to come” depend upon trust, another important theme of this narrative. It was certainly critical for Boris in Stalin’s Russia, and Daniel in Vietnam, and Ben, who tries to believe in new love. As the author suggests, “Trusting anyone is the most dangerous thing one can do, but it’s also one of the only things that make life worth living.”
Evaluation: I found this book to be lovely, engaging, thought-provoking, and hopeful in spite of the crosses the characters had to bear. The author writes with impressive craftsmanship and kept my interest up throughout. My one criticism is that the plot wasn’t neatly tied up in a bow for me at the end.
Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2006