In her second novel, following an impressive debut with In the Image (2002), Dara Horn blends history, folk tales, theology, family saga, fantasy, and crime caper in an endearing exploration of art, love, immortality, and authenticity. In the opening chapter of The World to Come, recently divorced, thirty-year-old Benjamin Siskind reluctantly attends a singles’ mixer at the Museum of Hebraic Art in New York. He notices a Marc Chagall work, a study for “Over Vitebsk,” hanging on the wall and, realizing that it once belonged to his mother, snatches it and takes it home. Erica Frank, a curator at the museum, tracks the theft to Ben, and during her efforts to get him to return the stolen painting, the two fall in love.
To explain how Ben’s mother, Rosalie, happened to own a valuable piece by Chagall, the novel tracks back to Russia in 1920. While teaching at the Jewish Boys’ Colony in Malakhovka outside Moscow, Chagall trades one of his canvases for an extraordinary painting by a precocious eleven-year-old orphan named Boris Kulbak. Boris is also encouraged by another teacher, the Yiddish author Pinkhas Kahanovitch, who writes under the pseudonym Der Nister.
Eventually, after Boris’s murder by Soviet secret police, his daughter, Rosalie, inherits the Chagall painting. Relocated to New Jersey, Rosalie marries a Vietnam War veteran named Daniel and gives birth to twins, Ben and Sara. Sara becomes an artist, and Ben, a child prodigy, becomes a writer for a television quiz show called American Genius. It is he who steals the Chagall painting from the museum in New York. Sara marries Leonid Shcharansky, a Ukrainian émigré who had bullied Ben in high school before becoming his best friend. She is pregnant at the time that her brother becomes an art thief.
Horn mingles historical figuresChagall, who becomes an international artistic celebrity, one of the most popular painters of the twentieth century, and Der Nister, who lives in wretched oblivion and dies in 1949 when Soviet premier Joseph Stalin liquidates the Yiddish intelligentsiawith fictional characters who contend with pogroms, state violence, war, terrorism, and the fragility of love. The book is strongest in its evocation of the vanished world of Eastern European Jewish writers, whom Horn, a scholar of Yiddish, clearly reveres. She celebrates and appropriates the stories of Der Nister, I. L. Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Nachman of Bratslav, Itsik Manger, and other masters of Yiddish fiction. She provides a compelling portrait of Der Nister, struggling against poverty and persecution to produce his distinctively enigmatic fiction, even while his suave old friend Chagall cultivates fame and fortune in the West.
However, The World to Come also provides a detailed and chilling account of combat in the jungles of Vietnam during the 1960’s. After joining the U.S. army in order to finance his college education, Lance Corporal Daniel Ziskind is assigned to help build roads near Da Nang. In agony, his right leg impaled on the bamboo spikes of a trap set by the Viet Cong, Daniel recalls his adolescence in rural New Jersey, where a mutual fascination with Yiddish literature intensifies his romance with young Rosalie Kulbak. His imagination also wanders through the world to come, a wondrous realm in which human souls congregate before birth and after death.
The center of the novel is present-day Manhattan, where Ben steals a painting, Erica pursues Ben, and the two conspire to return the work, undetected, to its place on the wall of her museum. However, they are not exactly returning the painting but rather a copy of it forged by Ben’s twin sister, Sara. Furthermore, Ben learns that the painting hanging in the museum might itself have been a forgery.
The World to Come concludes with a clever extended fable about the soul’s preparation for birth. During his nine months of gestation before entering mortal existence, Daniel Ziskind Shcharansky, the imminent child of...