Blameless and Upright, but Not That Good: Elie Wiesel Is a Better Spokesman Than Writer

elie wiesel Blameless and Upright, but Not That Good: Elie Wiesel Is a Better Spokesman Than Writer

Elie Wiesel (center), accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

The moment that Elie Wiesel stepped onstage and gave his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1986 was the moment he became the public figure people most associate with survivors of the Holocaust. He turned into the living embodiment of survival—not just a hero for Jews, but for all of humanity, a man who not only lived through one of the darkest periods in history but was also able to relive it all through his writing.

But it’s important to remember, when talking about Mr. Wiesel as a writer, that he won the Nobel Peace Prize, not the medal for literature. While being an ambassador for peace is as noble as the Nobel gets, Mr. Wiesel did not receive the award for his prose—he won it because, according to the press release from the Nobel committee, he was one of the “most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.” The release goes on several times to make mention of Mr. Wiesel’s “message,” but never once talks about his body of written works, which at present comprises 57 novels—including Night, the high school required reading that chronicles his experiences in the concentration camps and his liberation from them—two plays and a great deal that has yet to be translated from his native Yiddish. The main reason being that Elie Wiesel is a symbol, a public figure and a writer, in that order. At 83, it is his symbolic status that is most at stake in his latest novel, Hostage (Knopf, 224 pp., $25.95).

Hostage is the story of Shaltiel Feigenberg—a Jewish husband and writer from Brooklyn, circa 1975. Terrorists who want to prove that acts of terrorism in the name of Palestine can take place anywhere at any time—especially within the United States—kidnap him. They choose Shaltiel for no other reason than that he’s a Jew. And so Mr. Wiesel attempts to fit the two subjects that have brought him the most success—“the legacy of the Holocaust and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” as the press release succinctly puts it—into under 300 pages, but also tries to push “the power of memory” along with “the desire for resolution” into the mix. The end result is something like overpacking a suitcase and trying really hard to get it to fit into the overhead bin of an airplane: the contents don’t come out the way you hoped.

It is difficult to place Mr. Wiesel into the conversation of contemporary Jewish literature. He’s probably the last surviving writer who will ever have a bestseller that was originally written in Yiddish (this new book is translated from the French). You never hear the well-known Jewish writers of today casually drop him as an influence. Jonathan Safran Foerwould rather name-check the surrealist fiction of Bruno Shulz; Jonathan Lethem would prefer to write forewords for new editions of Nathanael West and Bernard Malamud rather than claim kinship with Mr. Wiesel, which is understandable when he writes things in Hostage like, “Jewish memories.  Each more painful and scalding than the next, bound together and tightened by the same fist that points the way to shadows, silent and distorted by anguish.”

While Mr. Wiesel makes a bold attempt at creating a nonlinear narrative, which is something of a contemporary flourish in itself, the endeavor isn’t very successful. The novel is disarmingly disjointed, moving from Shaltiel’s interactions with the kidnappers to his memories from a childhood spent hiding out in the Galician basement of a German count who only keeps the boy around so he’ll have a worthy chess partner. The disorienting chronology makes it feel as if we are reading scraps pieced together from Mr. Wiesel’s notebooks.

More importantly, Mr. Wiesel doesn’t spend any time acquainting us with Shaltiel other than letting us know that he’s a Jew originally from Eastern Europe. His profession is defined simply as a “storyteller”; he seems like a total schlemiel, but Mr. Wiesel never explicitly says that.  He doesn’t paint his main character as a Job type—it’s just something you pick up on because he’s being tortured by a force that, since he’s blindfolded, he literally can’t see. His crime, according to one of his captors, is “being Jewish” and having Muslim blood all over his hands, which means that just like his family, who, we read, were herded off to the camps, Shaltiel is guilty by association in the eyes of his captors. He isn’t rich, yields little influence, and is an insignificant person in the grand scheme of things. Yet they still snatch him; Shaltiel is the Jewish lamb the extremists are prepared to slaughter in order to advance their own agenda.

And that’s where the pithy allegories really begin totake shape. Shaltiel’s kidnappers are an Arab man named Ahmed and an Italian named Luigi. Ahmed is the bloodthirsty revolutionary who “believes that he is the Prophet’s personal servant.” The Italian plays the part of the passive-aggressive good cop, no doubt a citizen of the complacent European continent that allowed the rise of fascism and Hitler in the era of World Wars but now smiles as Israel walks by in the halls of the U.N. like nothing ever happened, all the while turning its back on the Jewish nation when conflict with its Arab neighbors looks to be reaching a boil.

That’s what is so infuriating about Hostage. Mr. Wiesel is a symbol of survival for people from Bosnia to Darfur, and yet this book is obsessed with victimization. It is propaganda for the people who have used the same boilerplate language for supporting Israel since the country’s creation: “Because no other people in the world have been as haunted as mine for thousands of years by the nostalgia of returning to the land of their ancestors,” as Shaltiel puts it, attempting to explain the existence of Israel to his kidnappers, who are hell-bent on seeing it destroyed. Noble, but getting into a tit-for-tat about a country you don’t even live in with men who are saying they are going to kill you if their demands aren’t met doesn’t seem very smart. Shaltiel is no martyr; could you really see him saying, “I reminded Luigi of a few historical truths: There had never been a Palestine state since the origins of Islam…” and getting into a semantic debate with men who have the means to end his life at any moment? While those might indeed be the facts, it feels too forced by a writer who needs to get a point across.

While its content is, for the most part, factually sound, Hostage is too convoluted to have any real enduring message, and the wonky narrative makes it difficult to enjoy.From an omniscient narrator telling the story of Shaltiel’s plight—“at first it all seems unreal to Shaltiel, a crazy scheme staged by men obsessed with pointless, criminal violence”—it jumps to Shaltiel telling stories of his days during and after the German occupation of his homeland: “I missed my family, of course. Sometimes when I was lonely, I couldn’t prevent tears from streaming down my face.”It’s almost as if Mr. Wiesel decided to mash up his greatest hits into one limp novel—some Holocaust here, a little bit of a Hasidic folktale there and a whole lot of tsuris dripping from every page.

The novel fails for two reasons, the most important being that Mr. Wiesel, this heroic symbol of an entire people’s survival, wrote a book about a man who exists only as a victim. It is almost the yin of Jewish self-hatred to the yang of Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, which was released earlier this year. While the latter is an obvious, self-aware and poorly executed attempt at satirizing the Jewish world’s inability to get the Holocaust out of its head (or the literal Anne Frank out of the attic, as Mr. Auslander so unfortunately puts it), Mr. Wiesel’s novel wallows in that old-fashioned idea that Jews as a culture are subhuman, just weak victims who are prey for stronger, more aggressive groups. The other reason: it just isn’t that good of a book. There’s a story in Hostage, but Mr. Wiesel weighs too much of it down with veiled personal politics. It isn’t thought-provoking (which is what I think he was going for) and it sure isn’t entertaining (which I don’t think Mr. Wiesel cares much about). So what’s its point? When Shaltiel asks his Italian captor what he views his hostage as—“A prisoner? A hostage? Just one more victim? A Jew? A human being?”—Luigi answers, “All of those, perhaps.” One can’t help but feel that even Mr. Wiesel himself doesn’t know the real answer.

editorial@observer.com