What Tracy Chevalier did for Vermeer in Girl With a Pearl Earring, Dara Horn did not do for Chagall in The World to Come and the story is richer for it. What I thought would be a fictionalized account of the life of Marc Chagall was anything but. He is just a minor character. The story is based on a real art heist that occurred in New York of a Chagall piece but Dara Horn’s version weaves family, politics, Jewish folklore, history, love and death in one big tapestry that reaches Russia, New Jersey, Vietnam and Paradise. We end up caring more about the thief than the artist.
The characters tell old Yiddish stories that they sometimes pass off as their own. The question that threads throughout the novel: is rescuing an old Yiddish folk tale headed for oblivion plagiarism? Or a heroic act of cultural CPR? My vote’s in and I’m glad the patient survived.
This book was the selection for “One Book, One People” by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California in 2008 and synagogues all over the country held book discussions to learn how The World to Come is used in the Torah. Judaic scholars have written volumes; Dara Horn wove it into her novel and left enough open ends that there is still plenty to think about. Her most colorful example describes the life of the not-yets (prenatal babies) being mentored in Paradise by family members from generations past. Brave but regretful grandfathers encourage you not to wait when something really matters. Literate and artistic grandmothers introduce you to the arts of all kinds and tell you to taste it all. While we forget these lessons as soon as we’re born, we carry the imprint of those who care about us: those we’ll never know. Each of us is an act of ancestral plagiarism to be carried into the world to come.