Looking back to move forward
NO other American or European writer is as much a casualty and a beneficiary of the forces of history as is Elie Wiesel. Were it not for Auschwitz, he would have doubtless become an obscure rabbi or mystic in some forest of Transylvania. Instead, he became a witness to mass murder and an orphan of the world. Along the way, as a celebrated novelist, memoirist, humanist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, he has become one of the world’s treasured icons and one of its most enigmatic and versatile figures.
In other countries, it’s not uncommon for noted fiction writers to be called upon to render opinions on topics of the day. They even have been known to hold political office, as did Czech playwright and poet Vaclav Havel, who led a peaceful revolution that toppled Communist rule in his country and then served as its president.
But the United States, for better or worse, is a nation that likes its experts specialized. There are few Renaissance men or women who have the public’s ear; those who wear too many hats are often dismissed as dabblers. This pigeonholing is a problem of our perception, which is particularly glaring in the case of Wiesel, whose line of work is not easy to characterize. In an age of one-note wonders, he is many contradictory things: an artist and a diplomat, a cloistered academic and a public intellectual, a soulful American fiction writer and a trenchant chronicler of European madness, a moral philosopher and a mystical sage, a secular humanist and a goodwill ambassador for Hasidism, an advocate for the language of silence and an outspoken trumpeter in defense of the oppressed.
Given a ride on the 20th century’s most nightmarish track, would he have preferred anonymity and its normalcy to the destiny he received? That too is another Elie Wiesel mystery.
What we do know is that amid all his public stirrings, he has produced a number of excellent novels. Unfortunately, the world hasn’t read many of them. That’s because his first and most widely read book, “Night,” a memoir of his own Holocaust horror and survival of Auschwitz -- with its majestic illumination of man’s darkest hour and the broad shadow that the Holocaust continues to cast over humanity -- has obscured Wiesel’s formidable body of work, particularly his fiction.
Indeed, so prominent a position does that memoir occupy in the canon of Holocaust testimony that most people who have read “Night” mistakenly believe they have “read” Wiesel when, in fact, they have read only his first offering, which neither represents nor validates the vastness of his literary output.
The good news is that it is never too late to rediscover a writer, even one as famous as Wiesel. His latest work, “The Time of the Uprooted,” is perhaps his most satisfying and successful work of fiction in years, written by a mature novelist with his finest talents on full display. It is also one of his most personal and sensual novels, combining the mystical power of “The Gates of the Forest” with the aching soulfulness of “The Fifth Son.”
At the same time, Wiesel has not forsaken his familiar themes: the inscrutability of God, the poetry of silence, the language of laughter, the interchangeability of names and identities in times of crisis, and the eloquence of mystics and madmen.
Gamaliel Friedman became an orphan when his father was tortured and his mother taken away as the Holocaust crept into Hungary. He survived due to the righteousness of Ilonka, a Christian woman and cabaret singer who sacrificed much to rescue and mother this Jewish boy, who lost not only his parents, but also his name. During the Nazi occupation, he was renamed Peter and memorized enough to pass as a Gentile if ever questioned.
The Holocaust caused massive displacements and dizzying substitutions. Wiesel knows this well, and he directs his main character through a maze of thwarted dreams. Gamaliel is now an older man, living in New York City as a ghost writer for hire, working secretly on a book of his own as he reflects on the meaning of exile, the psychic condition of the refugee and the unsettled plight of the uprooted. Wiesel writes that “a refugee is a different kind of being, one from whom all that defines a normal person has been amputated. He belongs to no nation, is welcome at no one’s table.”
Wiesel takes a hard look at a Holocaust survivor at twilight and is concerned by what he sees. There were limits to Gamaliel’s survival. When he fled Budapest for Vienna in 1956 during the revolt against communism, he hoped Ilonka would follow him. She never did, and he will never rid himself of guilt for having abandoned the woman who had selflessly rescued him.
Now, in New York, Gamaliel visits an elderly, disfigured and delirious Hungarian woman in a hospital bed, hoping that Ilonka has perhaps returned to him in her final hour. But the time passes without resolution, and the memory of Ilonka as a touchstone for human virtue takes on Proustian significance. Ilonka is the madeleine of Gamaliel’s memory. Whether she has returned or not, she personifies all that has been lost and uprooted, and all that can never be reclaimed.
But the brokenness continues. There’s a nostalgically unconsummated love affair. The former wife who committed suicide, leaving behind two embittered daughters estranged from their father. And, finally, Gamaliel’s most recent love, who ended up leaving him for another man.
Gamaliel is a Holocaust survivor very much unalive, yet quite capable of experiencing arousal and pleasure from women drawn to his sadness while repulsed by his surrender to life. In this way, he is not unlike the usual depictions of Holocaust survivors in art -- damaged, traumatized, numb yet functioning among the untouched. Gamaliel’s return to the living could never have encompassed a full turn. He remains alone, “immune to happiness,” not so much a ghost writer as an actual ghost. The Nazis transformed him into a magnet for loss. Moving from one exile to another, from one disconnection to the next, he resurfaces in New York with little anchoring to offset the uprootedness of his life.
Yet, even within this novel of self-conscious fatalism, all is not lost. Some of its most interesting and charming moments come from secondary characters -- Holocaust survivor homeboys, if you will -- four best friends, all refugees who first meet in Paris and eventually gather in New York as a playful, philosophical Greek chorus of Jews. They mockingly refer to themselves as the Elders of Zion.
They are, understandably, mistrustful of God and man, and haunted by memories of the unspeakable and ultimately unknowable. But they are also quirky and magnetic, quick-witted and supremely resourceful. During one of their more lively exchanges, Wiesel reminds his readers not to trivialize and misapply the meaning of the term “Holocaust survivor.”
“Survivor! ... Gamaliel’s reaction to the word has been that it was cheapened, made a cliche, used in all kinds of situations. Everybody wanted to be one. No need to have undergone a selection at Birkenau or the tortures of Treblinka.... How many times Gamaliel had heard some hapless speaker trying to win the audience’s sympathy by declaiming, ‘We are all survivors.... Of course, I was born in Manhattan, but I could have been born in Lodz or Krakow....’ Didn’t they realize that if everyone is a potential or virtual survivor, then no one is a true survivor?”
“The Time of the Uprooted” might never supplant “Night” on either the Holocaust or the Wiesel syllabus, but it wouldn’t be a tragedy if it did. Apart from being a stupendously artful novel, it is also a redemptive read, a forward-looking book from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor looking back. The perfect post-Holocaust novel from the man who for many has come to symbolize the Holocaust itself. *