This letter, by Oskar’s Grandpa, has red pen circles around many words and phrases, as though someone had gone through and edited it. Many of the circled items are misspellings, like “bourgois” or “actreses,” but some of the things circled aren’t grammatical mistakes at all, including such phrases as “my child” and “your mother is writing in the Nothing guest room.” Most of the letter is written in very long sentences, separated by commas, and it’s all one paragraph.
This is the one letter that Grandpa ever mailed and that Dad ever received, and the version of it that the reader sees has been read, presumably by Dad, and marked up. The phrases circled that aren’t grammatical errors appear to be marked because they’re emotionally, if not factually wrong.
Grandpa is writing to his son from the spot where Anna and Grandma’s father’s shed used to stand. Grandpa has written a letter to his son every day, he writes. He recalls the homes he used to imagine for himself and Anna, right before the Dresden bombings. Grandpa realizes that Anna’s father had been hiding Simon Goldberg, a Jewish friend, in the shed. Grandpa remembers that Goldberg was reading Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” which he spells “Metamorphosis” instead of “Metamorphoses”—the word is circled in red pen.
Grandpa could either be writing to the unborn child who died with Anna in Dresden or to Dad, since Anna’s father is the same as Grandma’s father, and thus “your mother’s father’s shed” would be the same for both. Misspelling Ovid’s Metamorphoses as Metamorphosis recalls, if unintentionally, Kafka’s famous short story, “The Metamorphosis,” in which the protagonist turns into a giant cockroach.
The last time that Grandpa saw Anna, she told him that she was pregnant. That night, the bombs fell on Dresden, and everything was burned. After the first raid, Grandpa leaves the shelter where he and his parents had taken refuge and searches everywhere for Anna, but he can’t find her. During the second raid, he has to run from shelter to shelter, because the cellars are burning, and the city is getting more and more crowded with bombings. Grandpa burns his hand on a doorknob. There’s a photograph of a doorknob inserted into the chapter.
The doorknob is a symbol of Grandpa’s trauma from the Dresden firebombing. Since Grandpa burned his hand on a doorknob, doorknobs immediately remind him of the horror of that night, and of his inability to find Anna or his parents. Whenever the doorknob appears in the text, it’s both an illustration of the scene and a sign that Grandpa is thinking about Dresden and is still traumatized.
Grandpa goes to the zoo, where he has to shoot all the animals that had escaped. People are dying gory deaths all around him—he sees people with their feet trapped in molten asphalt, for example. Grandpa gets taken to a hospital, where he is bandaged and his life is saved. After he is released, he searches everywhere for his parents, for Anna, and “for you” (although the “you” is circled in red). Grandpa doesn’t find any of them, although he does find his typewriter.
Grandpa’s forced shooting of the animals helps to explain why he keeps so many animals in his apartment in New York: it’s his effort to try and somehow make up for the zoo animals he killed during the firebombing. Even though Grandpa loses his family, his typewriter is saved, giving him a medium through which he can preserve his memories and his grief.
Grandpa remembers that after Anna had told him she was pregnant, her father gave Grandpa a letter from Simon Goldberg, who had been sent to a concentration camp. The letter says that Grandpa had made a strong impression on Goldberg.
If Grandpa made a strong impression on Simon Goldberg, the opposite is also true: Grandpa admires Goldberg and hopes his disappearance does not indicate his death.
Grandpa writes that he knows that he will not be able to send the letter he has just written, no matter how hard he tries. He signs it, “I love you, Your father,” which is also circled in red pen.
Dad never knew his father, so it’s hard for him to believe the words “I love you” or “Your father”; hence, he circles them in red, because they seem like errors to him. Just as Oskar lost his father, Dad experienced his own father as an absence.