- Elie Wiesel, translated by Catherine Temerson
- 214 pp.
- Reviewed by Faye Moskowitz
- September 11, 2012
Though touted as a thriller, this novel is more a mixture of memoir and fiction suffused with a series of existential questions and mystical epigrams.
“If you survived childhood, you have enough material for a lifetime,” says Flannery O’Connor. Beginning with Night, his first major success, published over half a century ago, Elie Wiesel has used the transformative power of words to document the experience he and his father suffered at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He is determined no one will ever forget his story or that of millions of others who perished in what has become known as the Holocaust. Wiesel says, “In spite of despair, hope must exist. In spite of suffering, humanity must prevail, and in spite of all the difference, the worst enemy, the worst peril, is indifference.”
A tireless battler against the “indifference” he decries, Wiesel, among the dwindling number of living witnesses still able to attest to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, insists on reminding the world never to forget. Author of over 50 works, he is recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States Congressional Gold Medal, an honorary knighthood of the British Empire, and many other significant honors.
Wiesel’s novel, Hostage, is set in 1975, three years after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by radical Palestinians at the Munich Olympics. The abduction and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl is years in the future, as is the horror of 9/11 that in real life brought terrorism home to Americans. Shaltiel, the protagonist, a self-styled storyteller who, perhaps like Wiesel himself, lives to tell his tales “to old people and children,” is abducted on the streets of New York. Shaltiel’s wife, Blanca, describes him to the police. “He’s knight of the imaginary, a magician of the word.” In other words, like victims always, he is an innocent. His captors, an Arab and an Italian, hope to use his life to bargain for the lives of three Palestinians held captive, one in the United States and two in Israel.
In a book that feels like a hybrid of memoir and fiction, Wiesel’s protagonist endures his imprisonment by ruminating on his childhood experiences during the Holocaust. He will not compare his present torment to that trial. Like his father, Haskell, with whom he was reunited after the war, Shaltiel finds it difficult to speak of what happened. When asked about the “cursed universe where Death and Evil substituted for man’s Creator and Judge,” Haskell says, “in order to give an answer, a new language would have to be created.” This “new language” would seem to be Wiesel’s lifetime ambition and achievement.
True to his calling, Shaltiel entertains his captors — the Arab as “bad cop” and the Italian as the kindlier one — with his stories. The kidnappers are flat characters who exist to espouse and justify their terrorist causes. The dialogue in the dark cellar where Shaltiel is held consists of arguments with which we are, sadly, all too familiar: primarily his captors’ justification for terrorism and the intractable problem of the Arab/Israeli conflict.
Hostage is not a suspense novel, a “thriller” as the book’s cover flap proclaims. From the earliest page we are told that Shaltiel’s ordeal ended in freedom. Instead, the book is suffused with a series of existential questions and mystical epigrams. “Oh, if only I knew the art of questioning,” says One-eyed Paritus in the epigraph. And questions that rarely have answers are what propel this book forward. Paritus, a mysterious wanderer, encounters the young Shaltiel and acts as a mentor while the budding journalist attempts to put together a vision of the world that can encompass both the spiritual and the humanistic sides, a vision that is not, as is Paritus, half-blind.
In Hebrew the name “Shaltiel” means “ask of God.” And ask he does, as helpless victims have asked forever, “What do they want from me? What have I done to them?” Is there a common language that will one day allow humankind to speak with and understand one another? Shaltiel seems to despair of it.
And so, one by one in the hellhole of captivity, the memories, the stories return to Shaltiel: the hiding during the war in a cellar that echoes his present situation, the games of chess that ultimately saved his life, the parents whose fate he did not learn until after the war, the brother who gave up Orthodox Judaism for faith in Communism, the many kindnesses of strangers. In the end Shaltiel once again emerges from death in life, and this time he has a message:
“For the good of all, I say: Be careful, the brutality of the world must not be more powerful or more attractive than love and friendship. Celebrate speech instead of scorning it; elevate it to the level of prayer so that up there, the Judge of men will give men an appetite for serenity.”
Out of his mouth into God’s ear.
Faye Moskowitz’s most recent publication is a reissue by the Feminist Press of And the Bridge is Love.