t was a caterpillar scheme--a dream of fabulous escape--that had ultimately carried Josef Kavalier across Asia and the Pacific to his cousin's narrow bed on Ocean Avenue.
As soon as the German army occupied Prague, talk began, in certain quarters, of sending the city's famous Golem, Rabbi Loew's miraculous automaton, into the safety of exile. The coming of the Nazis was attended by rumors of confiscation, expropriation, and plunder, in particular of Jewish artifacts and sacred objects. The great fear of its secret keepers was that the Golem would be packed up and shipped off to ornament some institut or private collection in Berlin or Munich. Already a pair of soft-spoken, keen-eyed young Germans carrying notebooks had spent the better part of two days nosing around the Old-New Synagogue, in whose eaves legend had secreted the long-slumbering champion of the ghetto. The two young Germans had claimed to be merely interested scholars without official ties to the Reichsprotektorat, but this was disbelieved. Rumor had it that certain high-ranking party members in Berlin were avid students of theosophy and the so-called occult. It seemed only a matter of time before the Golem was discovered, in its giant pine casket, in its dreamless sleep, and seized.
There was, in the circle of its keepers, a certain amount of resistance to the idea of sending the Golem abroad, even for its own protection. Some argued that since it had originally been formed of the mud of the River Moldau, it might suffer physical degradation if removed from its native climate. Those of a historical bent--who, like historians everywhere, prided themselves on a levelheaded sense of perspective--reasoned that the Golem had already survived many centuries of invasion, calamity, war, and pogrom without being exposed or dislodged, and they counseled against rash reaction to another momentary downturn in the fortunes of Bohemia's Jews. There were even a few in the circle who, when pressed, admitted that they did not want to send the Golem away because in their hearts they had not surrendered the childish hope that the great enemy of Jew-haters and blood libelers might one day, in a moment of dire need, be revived to fight again. In the end, however, the vote went in favor of removing the Golem to a safe place, preferably in a neutral nation that was out of the way and not entirely devoid of Jews.
It was at this point that a member of the secret circle who had ties to Prague's stage-magic milieu put forward the name of Bernard Kornblum as a man who might be relied upon to effect the Golem's escape.
Bernard Kornblum was an Ausbrecher, a performing illusionist who specialized in tricks with straitjackets and handcuffs--the sort of act made famous by Harry Houdini. He had recently retired from the stage (he was seventy, at least) to settle in Prague, his adopted home, and await the inescapable. But he came originally, his proponent said, from Vilna, the holy city of Jewish Europe, a place known, in spite of its reputation for hardheadedness, to harbor men who took a cordial and sympathetic view of golems. Also, Lithuania was officially neutral, and any ambitions Hitler might have had in its direction had reportedly been forsworn by Germany, in a secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Thus Kornblum was duly summoned, fetched from his inveterate seat at a poker table in the card room of the Hofzinser Club to the secret location where the circle met--at Faleder Monuments, in a shed behind the headstone showroom. The nature of the job was explained to Kornblum: the Golem must be spirited from its hiding place, suitably prepared for transit, and then conveyed out of the country, without attracting notice, to sympathetic contacts in Vilna. Necessary official documents--bills of lading, customs certificates--would be provided by influential members of the circle, or by their highly placed friends.
Bernard Kornblum agreed at once to take on the circle's commission. Although like many magicians a professional unbeliever who reverenced only Nature, the Great Illusionist, Kornblum was at the same time a dutiful Jew. More important, he was bored and unhappy in retirement and had in fact been considering a perhaps ill-advised return to the stage when the summons had come. Though he lived in relative penury, he refused the generous fee the circle offered him, setting only two conditions: that he would divulge nothing of his plans to anyone, and accept no unsolicited help or advice. Across the entire trick he would draw a curtain, as it were, lifting the veil only when the feat had been pulled off.
This proviso struck the circle as not only charming, in a certain way, but sensible as well. The less any of them knew about the particulars, the more easily they would be able, in the event of exposure, to disavow knowledge of the Golem's escape.
Kornblum left Faleder Monuments, which was not far from his own lodgings on Maisel Street, and started home, his mind already beginning to bend and crimp the armature of a sturdy and elegant plan. For a brief period in Warsaw in the 1890s, Kornblum had been forced into a life of crime, as a second-story man, and the prospect of prizing the Golem out of its current home, unsuspected, awoke wicked old memories of gaslight and stolen gems. But when he stepped into the vestibule of his building, all of his plans changed. The gardienne poked her head out and told him that a young man was waiting to see him in his room. A good-looking boy, she said, well spoken and nicely dressed. Ordinarily, of course, she would have made the visitor wait on the stair, but she thought she had recognized him as a former student of Herr Professor.
Those who make their living flirting with catastrophe develop a faculty of pessimistic imagination, of anticipating the worst, that is often all but indistinguishable from clairvoyance. Kornblum knew at once that his unexpected visitor must be Josef Kavalier, and his heart sank. He had heard months ago that the boy was withdrawing from art school and emigrating to America; something must have gone wrong.
Josef stood when his old teacher came in, clutching his hat to his chest. He was wearing a new-looking suit of fragrant Scottish tweed. Kornblum could see from the flush in his cheeks and the excess of care he took to avoid knocking his head against the low sloping ceiling that the boy was quite drunk. And he was hardly a boy anymore; he must be nearly nineteen.
"What is it, son?" said Kornblum. "Why are you here?"
"I'm not here," Josef replied. He was a pale, freckled boy, blackhaired, with a nose at once large and squashed-looking, and wide-set blue eyes half a candle too animated by sarcasm to pass for dreamy. "I'm on a train for Ostend." With an outsize gesture, Josef pretended to consult his watch. Kornblum decided that he was not pretending at all. "I'm passing Frankfurt right about now, you see."
"Yes. My family's entire fortune has been spent. Everyone who must be bribed has been bribed. Our bank accounts have been emptied. My father's insurance policy has been sold. My mother's jewelry, her silver. The pictures. Most of the good furniture. Medical equipment. Stocks. Bonds. All to ensure that I, the lucky one, can be sitting on this train, you see? In the smoking car." He blew a puff of imaginary smoke. "Hurtling through Germany on my way to the good old U.S.A." He finished in twanging American. To Kornblum's ear, his accent sounded quite good.
"With all of my papers in order, you betcha."
Kornblum sighed. "Your exit visa?" he guessed. He had heard stories of many such last-minute denials in recent weeks.
"They said I was missing a stamp. One stamp. I told them this couldn't be possible. Everything was in order. I had a checklist, prepared for me by the Underassistant Secretary for Exit Visas himself. I showed this checklist to them."
"They said the requirements were changed this morning. They had a directive, a telegram from Eichmann himself. I was put off the train at Eger. Ten kilometers from the border."
"Ah." Kornblum eased himself down onto the bed--he suffered from hemorrhoids--and patted the coverlet beside him. Josef sat down. He buried his face in his hands. He let out a shuddering breath, his shoulders grew taut, cords stood out on the back of his neck. He was struggling with the desire to cry.
"Look," the old magician said, hoping to forestall tears, "look now. I am quite certain you will be able to correct the predicament." The words of consolation came out more stiffly than Kornblum would have liked, but he was starting to feel a little apprehensive. It was well past midnight, and the boy had an air of desperation, of impending explosion, that could not fail to move Kornblum, but also made him nervous. Five years earlier, he had been involved in a misadventure with this reckless and unlucky boy, to his undiminished regret.
"Come," Kornblum said. He gave the boy a clumsy little pat on the shoulder. "Your parents are sure to be worrying. I'll walk you home."
This did it; with a sharp intake of breath, like a man leaping in terror from a burning deck into a frozen sea, Josef began to cry.
"I already left them once," he said, shaking his head. "I just can't do it to them again."
All morning, in the train carrying him west toward Ostend and America, Josef had been tormented by the bitter memory of his farewell. He had neither wept, nor tolerated especially well, the weeping of his mother and grandfather, who had sung the role of Vitek in the 1926 premiere of Janácek's Vêc Makropulos at Brno and tended, as is not uncommon among tenors, to wear his heart on his sleeve. But Josef, like many boys of nineteen, was under the misapprehension that his heart had been broken a number of times, and he prided himself on the imagined toughness of that organ. His habit of youthful stoicism kept him cool in the lachrymose embrace of his grandfather that morning at the Bahnhof. He had also felt disgracefully glad to be going. He was not happy to be leaving Prague so much as he was thrilled to be headed for America, for the home of his father's sister and an American cousin named Sam, in unimaginable Brooklyn, with its nightspots and tough guys and Warner Bros. verve. The same buoyant Cagneyesque callousness that kept him from marking the pain of leaving his entire family, and the only home he knew, also allowed him to tell himself that it would be only a matter of time before they all joined him in New York. Besides, the situation in Prague was undoubtedly as bad now as it was ever going to get. And so, at the station, Josef had kept his head erect and his cheeks dry and puffed on a cigarette, resolutely affecting greater notice of the other travelers on the train platform, the steamshrouded locomotives, the German soldiers in their elegant coats, than of the members of his own family. He kissed his grandfather's scratchy cheek, withstood his mother's long embrace, shook hands with his father and with his younger brother, Thomas, who handed Josef an envelope. Josef stuck it in a coat pocket with a studied absentmindedness, ignoring the trembling of Thomas's lower lip as the envelope vanished. Then, as Josef was climbing into the train, his father had taken hold of his son's coattails and pulled him back down to the platform. He reached around from behind Josef to accost him with a sloppy hug. The shock of his father's tear-damp mustache against Josef's cheek was mortifying. Josef had pulled away.
"See you in the funny papers," he said. Jaunty, he reminded himself; always jaunty. In my panache is their hope of salvation.
As soon as the train pulled away from the platform, however, and Josef had settled back in the second-class compartment seat, he felt, like a blow to the stomach, how beastly his conduct had been. He seemed at once to swell, to pulse and burn with shame, as if his entire body were in rebellion against his behavior, as if shame could induce the same catastrophic reaction in him as a bee's sting. This very seat had cost, with the addition of departure imposts and the recent "transfer excise," precisely what Josef's mother had been able to raise from the pawning of an emerald brooch, her husband's gift to her on their tenth anniversary. Shortly before that triste anniversary, Frau Dr. Kavalier had miscarried in her fourth month of pregnancy, and abruptly the image of this unborn sibling--it would have been a sister--arose in Josef's mind, a curl of glinting vapor, and fixed him with a reproachful emerald gaze. When the emigration officers came on at Eger to take him off the train--his name was one of several on their list--they found him between two cars, snot-nosed, bawling into the crook of his elbow.
The shame of Josef's departure, however, was nothing compared to the unbearable ignominy of his return. On the journey back to Prague, crowded now into a third-class car of an airless local, with a group of strapping, loud Sudeten farm families headed to the capital for some kind of religious rally, he spent the first hour relishing a sense of just punishment for his hard-heartedness, his ingratitude, for having abandoned his family at all. But as the train passed through Kladno, the inevitable homecoming began to loom. Far from offering him the opportunity to make up for his unpardonable behavior, it seemed to him, his surprise return would be an occasion only to bring his family further sorrow. For the six months since the start of occupation, the focus of the Kavaliers' efforts, of their collective existence, had been the work of sending Josef to America. This effort had, in fact, come to represent a necessary counterbalance to the daily trial of mere coping, a hopeful inoculation against its wasting effects. Once the Kavaliers had determined that Josef, having been born during a brief family sojourn in the Ukraine in 1920, was, by a quirk of politics, eligible to emigrate to the United States, the elaborate and costly process of getting him there had restored a measure of order and meaning to their lives. How it would crush them to see him turn up on their doorstep not eleven hours after he had left! No, he thought, he could not possibly disappoint them by coming home. When the train at last crawled back into the Prague station early that evening, Josef remained in his seat, unable to move, until a passing conductor suggested, not unkindly, that the young gentleman had better get off.
Josef wandered into the station bar, swallowed a liter and a half of beer, and promptly fell asleep in a booth at the back. After an indefinite period, a waiter came over to shake him, and Josef woke up, drunk. He wrestled his valise out into the streets of the city that he had, only that morning, seriously imagined he might never see again. He drifted along Jerusalem Street, into the Josefov, and somehow, almost inevitably, his steps led him to Maisel Street, to the flat of his old teacher. He could not dash the hopes of his family by letting them see his face again; not, at any rate, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. If Bernard Kornblum could not assist him in escaping, at least he would be able to help him to hide.
Kornblum handed Josef a cigarette and lit it for him. Then he went over to his armchair, settled carefully into it, and lit another for himself. Neither Josef Kavalier nor the Golem's keepers were the first to have approached Kornblum in the desperate expectation that his expertise with jail cells, straitjackets, and iron chests might somehow be extended to unlocking the borders of sovereign nations. Until this night, he had turned all such inquiries aside as not merely impractical, or beyond his expertise, but extreme and premature. Now, however, sitting in his chair, watching his former student shuffle helplessly through the flimsy scraps of triplicate paper, train tickets, and stamped immigration cards in his travel wallet, Kornblum's keen ears detected the sound, unmistakable to him, of the tumblers of a great iron lock clicking into place. The Emigration Office, under the directorship of Adolf Eichmann, had passed from mere cynical extortion to outright theft, taking applicants for everything they had in return for nothing at all. Britain and America had all but closed their doors--it was only through the persistence of an American aunt and the geographic fluke of his birth in the Soviet Union that Josef had been able to obtain a U.S. entry visa. Meanwhile, here in Prague, not even a useless old lump of river mud was safe from the predatory snout of the invader.
"I can get you to Viloa, in Lithuania," Kornblum said at last. "From there you will have to find your own way. Memel is in German hands now, but perhaps you can find passage from Priekule."
"I am afraid so."
After a moment the boy nodded, and shrugged, and stubbed out the cigarette in an ashtray marked with the kreuzer-and-spade symbol of the Hofzinser Club.
"'Forget about what you are escaping from,'" he said, quoting an old maxim of Kornblum's. "'Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.'"
Excerpted from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Micheal Chabon. Copyright © 2000 by Micheal Chabon. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.