Book review: ‘The Sonderberg Case’ by Elie Wiesel

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Sonderberg Case

A Novel

Elie Wiesel, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson

Alfred A. Knopf: 178 pp., $25

Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” a memoir of Auschwitz and Buchenwald that is a pillar of Holocaust literature, is read by schoolchildren all over the world. In the years since he published it in 1958, Wiesel has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and written some 50 books of fiction and nonfiction. Few would argue that a man who was sent to the extermination camps at 15, who saw his mother and little sister led off to the gas chambers and who watched the Nazis work and starve his father to death shouldn’t write about the Holocaust as often as he pleases — especially now, when the witnesses are dying out. A better question to ask is whether Wiesel’s new novel, “The Sonderberg Case,” adds anything measureable to his body of work.

The narrator, Yedidyah Wasserman, is a New York theater critic whose whimsical editor assigns him to report on a murder trial as if it were a play. The defendant, an eerily self-possessed young German named Werner Sonderberg, is accused of taking his elderly uncle, Hans Dunkelman, to an Adirondack resort and pushing him off a cliff. Sonderberg’s plea — “guilty and not guilty” — irritates the judge and intrigues Wasserman, who can’t forget something his grandfather told him: “When a man’s life is at stake, it is not theater.”

The Nazis, of course, turned mass killing into something very like theater, both to numb themselves to the reality of what they were doing and to mesmerize their victims. And it’s no surprise — though, like the editor’s whim, it’s an awkward contrivance on Wiesel’s part — that the seemingly so here-and-now trial Wasserman covers turns out to have a Holocaust connection.

Wasserman, it turns out, grew up thinking he was the child of Holocaust survivors — beloved but haunted people who quoted from Talmudic sages and talked like sages themselves, people who collected fragments of ancient Jewish culture, who lived in America but were not of it. Recently, however, he has discovered that he was adopted. Before being sent to the camps, where they died, his real parents left him with a Romanian peasant woman, who turned him over to a relief agency after the war.

Dreams, hypnosis, even a visit to Romania give Wasserman only fleeting clues to his early childhood. His whole life seems unmoored. His actress wife, Alika, accuses him of abandoning the theater, their shared love. His sons find him depressed and irritable.

And then Sonderberg, who is acquitted after the medical examiner confirms that he left the resort before Dunkelman died, feels compelled, years later, to track Wasserman down and explain the “guilty” part of his plea.

Along with Wasserman, we hope for illumination from Sonderberg’s story, but it comes to us hurriedly, secondhand, partly in paraphrase. Unfortunately, the stilted style and convoluted rendering of this key scene are typical of “The Sonderberg Case” — in contrast to “Night,” which is simple, direct, harrowing, unforgettable.

Harris is a critic and the author of the novel “The Chieu Hoi Saloon.”