Bookforum | Feb/Mar 2006

An art heist always makes for a good story. Perhaps the appeal derives from its very paradox—that an artwork could possess such limitless capacity for expression yet be utterly mute on the question of whose hands have pulled it from the wall. Dara Horn's engaging second novel, The World to Come, centers on the disappearance of a Chagall from the Museum of Hebraic Art in New York City. But Horn forgoes whodunit dramatics; in her story, the theft is well lit and effortless. Instead, she unravels the mysteries inscribed in the painting's fictional provenance, linking the life of the famed expatriate artist with the fates of an orphaned Russian schoolboy and a Yiddish novelist imperiled by the rise of Soviet power.

Parents are an endangered species in Horn's novel. The lucky ones succumb to illness; the unlucky, dwelling in less auspicious times and nations, are hauled away at night on charges of treason. When we meet Benjamin Ziskind, the novel's protagonist, he is grieving for his mother, recently lost, and his marriage, recently ended. He feels himself to be "a citizen of a necropolis," his dead mother and father constantly interrupting his sight line. The novel as a whole mimics this effect, with long-departed artists, writers, and relatives acting out their parts among the living, past scenes intermingled with present. These early histories traverse a surprising range of situations, from a communal apartment in postwar Moscow to a jungle raid in Vietnam. Viewed through these temporal parallels, the vulnerability of an artwork to theft, as demonstrated by the Chagall heist, pales in comparison with the dangers art faces under totalitarianism—and these in turn pale next to the fragility of human life under threat of political violence.

The novel's most moving episodes are those devoted to the Yiddish novelist known pseudonymously as Der Nister, or "the Hidden One." Fearing the destruction of his writing and desperate for his work to endure, Der Nister stuffs manuscript pages behind enormous canvases painted by the revered Chagall, sacrificing his words to ensure their survival, as if "mailing a letter to the next world." In Horn's telling, Chagall's paintings thus unwittingly become collaborative receptacles of meaning. It little matters that future curators lack the knowledge to interpret all the signs. The reader sees and is satisfied.

The World to Come is also the name of a children's book published by Benjamin's mother (whose fabulist, often macabre tales are quoted at length throughout the novel), and the phrase refers to both the world that follows death and the world that precedes life—"this world, to come," as Benjamin understands it. Horn's depiction of this realm is imaginative; its placement in the narrative, however, is a pity. It arrives at the novel's close, so that the story's powerful climax unexpectedly gives way to mystical territory, effectively escaping resolution. This is a strange evasion in a novel otherwise skilled in the art of balancing different worlds, texts, and eras. That Horn's characters are sympathetic and believable only adds to the disappointment, for she has persuaded us to care not just for their worlds to come, but for the world they currently, vividly inhabit.