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The Amazing Adventures

of Kavalier & Clay (2001)

· literature,history

He went down the hall to his father's study, checking to make sure that Thomas did not follow, and doing his best to ignore the piled crates, the open doors that ought at this hour to have been long shut, the rolled carpets, the forlorn knocking of his shoe heels along the bare wooden floors. In his father's office, the desk and bookcases had been wrapped in quilted blankets and tied with leather straps, the pictures and curtains taken down. The boxes that contained the uncanny clothing of endocrine freaks had been dragged from the closet and stacked, conveniently, just by the door. Each bore a pasted-on label, carefully printed in his father's strong, regular hand, that gave a precise accounting of the contents of the crate:




For some reason, the sight of these labels touched Josef. The writing was as legible as if it had been typeset, each letter shod and gloved with serifs, the parentheses neatly crimped, the wavy hyphens like stylized bolts of lightning. The labels had been lettered lovingly; his father had always expressed that emotion best through troubling with details. In this fatherly taking of pains - in this stubbornness, persistence, orderliness, patience, and calm - Josef had always taken comfort. Here Dr. Kavalier seemed to have composed, on his crates of strange mementos, a series of messages in the very alphabet of imperturbability itself. The labels seemed evidence of all the qualities his father and family were going to require to survive the ordeal to which Josef was abandoning them. With his father in charge, the Kavaliers and the Katzes would doubtless manage to form one of those rare households in which decency and order prevailed. With patience and calm, persistence and stoicism, good handwriting and careful labeling, they would meet persecution, indignity, and hardship head-on.

But then, staring at the label on one crate, which read




Josef felt a bloom of dread in his belly, and all at once he was certain that it was not going to matter one iota how his father and the others behaved. Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dust on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom. Stoicism and an eye for detail would avail them nothing. In later years, when he remembered this moment, Josef would be tempted to think that he had suffered a premonition, looking at those mucilage-caked labels, of the horror to come. At the time it was a simpler matter. The hair stood up on the back of his neck with a prickling discharge of ions. His heart pulsed in the hollow of his throat as if someone had pressed there with a thumb. And he felt, for an instant, that he was admiring the penmanship of someone who had died.

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