The World to Come has been chosen by the Deschutes County Public Library for its 2008 program, A Novel Idea. There are a number of events planned in conjunction with encouraging the entire county to read this book, including author readings. In the past the library has picked books related to activities in our area such as The River Why by James Duncan and Bowerman and the Men of Oregon by Kenny Moore. Other choices such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Gonzalez & Daughter Trucking Co. by Maria Amparo Escandon have taken most of us out of our geographical and cultural comfort zone and The World to Come seems to fit more into this later category.
I found this book to be very dense, with some wonderfully descriptive language and vivid images. The story starts with Benjamin Ziskind, a former child prodigy and current quiz show question writer. It goes back in time to when his Jewish ancestors were being persecuted in Russia and a famous artist, Chagall, gave his grandfather a painting. This painting surfaces in a museum near Benjamin’s house and he steals it. This story is often billed as a mystery, but it is really not, unless the mystery is how the painting ended up in the museum.
There are many layers to this story. There is much discussion of death and the world to come. This book has elements of historical fiction in the two artists portrayed, Chagall and Der Nister, are actual people. Chagall, a painter, makes it out of Russia and becomes very successful. Der Nister, a writer, dies in a gulag. Horn fictionalizes his life and a story he has allegedly written survives hidden in paintings. The words of Der Nister’s mentor seem prophetic and harsh. “Your purpose as a writer is to achieve one task, and one task only: to build a paper bridge to the world to come.”
I found it a challenging book. As I mentioned before about The Savage Garden I do not really like historical fiction with real people. However, that is a relatively small portion of the novel and the truly fictional characters are all remarkably well-developed. Benjamin’s twin sister plays an integral role and the stories of their parents, now dead, are very intriguing. The book also ends on a somewhat ambiguous note. It did not seem ambiguous to me, but when our book group discussed it not everyone agreed on what happened at the end. I also found some of the writing very beautiful. It is a worthwhile read and I am looking forward to the library’s events.