Elie Wiesel, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson
Alfred A. Knopf: 214 pp., $25.95
It’s hard to read Elie Wiesel’s new novel, “Hostage,” without thinking about his classic Holocaust recollection, “Night.” That’s partly because both deal with captivity, and even more with questions of faith and identity and our place in the universe, at a moment when such elements appear to have been rendered moot. But even more, “Hostage,” like “Night,” begs the question of how we read it — of the type of document it is.
In the case of the earlier book, that tension (and it is very much a tension) has to do with the line between fact and fiction, between literal and metaphorical truth. This isn’t suggesting that Wiesel invented his experience, just that, in the effort to re-create it, he shifts into allegory when it suits him, transforming his suffering into something universal, a vision of a world from which God has gone.
"[I]f ‘Night’ is not a novel, even an autobiographical novel, it is not exactly a memoir, either,” Ruth Franklin wrote in 2006 in the New Republic, adding that it has “a useful lesson to teach about … the obligation to remember and to testify, certainly, but also the artistic and even moral obligation to construct a credible persona and to craft a beautiful work.”
The point, in other words, is to humanize the inhuman by shaping memory to an aesthetic end. Is it testimony or literature that we’re reading? The answer is both.
With “Hostage,” the tensions are somewhat different — and not just because it’s a slighter piece of work. Rather, half a century after “Night,” Wiesel has grown less interested in testimony than advocacy, which is a tricky narrative intent. This brings us back to the question of how to read his new book: as the saga of Shaltiel Feigenberg, a Jewish storyteller from Brooklyn kidnapped in 1975 by a pair of self-styled terrorists, or as a series of position papers on faith, the Holocaust, Jewish exceptionalism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the entire postwar panoply?
Again, the answer is both — although Wiesel’s didactic impulses overwhelm his story, leaving Shaltiel’s ordeal to stand, primarily, as a frame for his creator’s ideas.
“Later on,” Wiesel writes, “alone in the musty smelling basement, Shaltiel wondered: Didn’t he live in the Tower of Babel? Didn’t we all? In those days, languages were all mixed together, words had no more meaning, people didn’t understand their fellow men. My listeners, what are their languages? My torturers, what is their true language? What is the point of making words to tell the truth about life if no one listens to you or understands you? … The storyteller and his ramblings. Locked up in a jail built of words.”
What Wiesel suggests is the futility of story in the face of obliteration, which was also one theme of “Night.” He makes the point explicit as Shaltiel plumbs his memories, beginning with World War II and spiraling outward to his childless marriage; his devotion to his father, a survivor of Auschwitz; and always his love of chess. It was chess that saved him during the Holocaust, when he was protected by a German officer because of his acuity at the game. And it is chess too that offers solace (initially, anyway) in the basement where he is held for four days while demands are made for a prisoner exchange.
Still, even as he plays a kind of mental chess with his captors, arguing politics, despairing of his survival, Shaltiel begins to lose connection to the world. “The hours drag on,” Wiesel observes, “heavy with anxiety. Shaltiel, in his delirium, becomes more and more pessimistic. He says to himself that whereas in the first basement he used to pass the time by playing chess in his head, here, in the second one, he feels even dirtier and more diminished, virtually repudiated by life.”
Wiesel takes us into the heart of the experience: How do we survive in a universe where all logic, all reason, has been stripped away and we are at the mercy of chaotic forces? What is the effect on our humanity? This brings to mind other novels, including Richard Powers’ “Plowing the Dark,” which involves a hostage in the Middle East, and Don DeLillo’s “Mao II,” with its insistence that "[s]tories have no point if they don’t absorb our terror” — a vivid counterpoint to Shaltiel’s disintegrating sense of self.
And yet, if Wiesel is operating from a similar territory, he has a different agenda, more about the message than the characters. Hence, the debate, late in the novel, between Shaltiel and one of his kidnappers about the meaning of revolution and the demands of history. “You call me a torturer, an executioner, a murderer, and God knows what else, whereas I say I’m a revolutionary,” the latter announces, to which Shaltiel responds with a declaration of his own. “In other words,” he retorts, “by submitting history to your own will, by making it your slave … you say you want to free it. You say you’re obeying it, whereas, in the name of your theories, you’re trying to eliminate it and substitute your own. But, admit it, your theories are not very pretty, for they lead to the ugliness of extreme violence that is the negation of life.”
The trouble with such commentary is that, regardless of Wiesel’s moral authority, it’s not very good dialogue. That, in turn, reminds us of the contrivances at the center of the book. Without giving anything away, there is, finally, no real sense of threat in this novel — both because Wiesel telegraphs Shaltiel’s survival from the outset, and because we never quite believe in the world he creates.
When the same kidnapper, an Italian, imagines the future, it is (surprise, surprise) the future we occupy today. “The day is not far off,” he tells Shaltiel, “when suicide terrorism will be global.... Not since the eleventh century, when Sheikh Hassan ibn Sabbah sent his emissaries to the four corners of Islam to kill their enemies and kill themselves, has the world known these kinds of revolutionary deeds.”
There’s a point to be made here, about the rhetoric of revolution, or perhaps responsibility and denial, but it is both too clever and not clever enough. “Outside, life triumphs,” Wiesel writes, describing the end of World War II. But in “Hostage,” that life remains at a distance, beyond the walls of Shaltiel’s basement cell.