Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555
An extract from the Koran that serves as prologue to the story hints at the miracle of the title. It tells of a person whom God has made die over the course of a hundred years. To this person, the time that has passed has been “a day, or part of a day.”
The story itself begins on the night of March 14, 1939, in an apartment in Prague. It is the home of Jaromir Hladik, an author, whose principal works include an unfinished play and two scholarly volumes, one entitled Vindication of Eternity, the other a study of Jewish sources of the seventeenth century Christian mystic Jakob Boehme.
Hladik dreams of a centuries-long chess game whose opponents are two prominent families and whose forgotten prize is rumored to be infinite. The chessboard itself is set up in a secret tower. In his dream, Hladik is the first-born son of one of the families, and as he runs to make the next move, he realizes that he cannot remember the rules of the game. At this point, Hladik awakes to the sound of Nazi soldiers marching down his street.
Five days later, Hladik is arrested because of his Jewish blood and his inquiries into Jewish sources. Julius Rothe, the Nazi official who must decide Hladik’s fate, is convinced of Hladik’s importance from a catalogue listing. This listing was prepared by the publisher of Hladik’s translation of the Sepher Yezirah, an early work of Jewish mysticism. Ignorant of the world of scholarship, and oblivious to the publisher’s exaggeration of Hladik’s reputation, Rothe condemns Hladik to death.
In prison, Hladik imagines all the possible details of his execution. On the night before he is to face a firing squad, he is distracted from his imaginings by the thought of his play, The Enemies. Anxious to redeem himself from his unsatisfactory literary career with this play, he asks God to grant him a year to complete it.
Just before dawn, Hladik dreams that he is hiding in a library. To the librarian’s question regarding what he seeks, Hladik replies that he seeks God. The librarian responds that God is in one of the pages of one of the four hundred thousand books in the library, and that he himself has gone blind from searching for him. Someone returns an atlas to the librarian, who hands it to Hladik, after dismissing it as useless. Hladik opens the atlas at random and touches a letter. A voice tells him that his year has been granted. He awakens just before two soldiers enter his cell and order him to follow them to the courtyard. The soldiers are early. The squad must wait fourteen minutes, until it is precisely nine o’clock. At the appointed time, the sergeant gives the command, and the universe stands still. Hladik, paralyzed, reflects that if he were dead, his thoughts would have ended, which they have not. He falls asleep, and on waking, finds the world still immobile.
Hladik finally realizes that his secret miracle has been granted. Within the secrecy of his mind, a year will pass between the command to fire and his death. So, in his mind, he labors on his play. After adding the last finishing touch, gun blasts bring him down. Hladik dies at 9:02 in the morning.