Reviewed by Rabbi Jack Riemer
This is Elie Wiesel’s 50th book; his 50th attempt to express the inexpressible, to speak about silence.
The plot this time is both simple and complex. A storyteller, a person whose family lived through the Holocaust, is taken hostage on the streets of Brooklyn where he lives. He has been captured by terrorists, who want to trade him for three of their comrades who are in Israeli and American prisons for murdering civilians.
For four long days and four long nights, the hostage sits in a dark, dank basement. Sometimes he is blindfolded; sometimes he can see and even speak to his captors. During this long period his mind wanders — to the concentration camps where his mother and his sister died, to the place in Russia where his uncle gave unquestioning service to Communism until he found out that it was a false god, to the dilapidated house of the German count where he was hidden and his life was saved for no good reason except that he played chess well, and to the world of his fathers where he acquired faith, songs, and silences that nurture him ever since.
He wonders whether the world outside knows that he has been abducted, and whether they even care. He wonders whether they are looking for him, or whether he is just another missing person in a society where there are so many others.
He reaches out to his captors and tries to communicate with them. One is a rabid zealot, who cannot be reasoned with, who lives on hatred. The other is a person who is capable of experiencing doubt and who may be open to reason, But the two seem to see him only as a pawn, as a bargaining chip, not as a human being.
He broods about the meaning of his life, about whether he should have had children so that his world would go on, about whether the world really needed a storyteller, and about the teachers he has met during his lifetime, especially the one who taught him how to sing and speak about silence.
I won’t reveal the ending. I won’t tell you whether he survives or not. But the questions that this book deals with are much deeper than just that. They deal with whether communication between good and evil is ever possible. They deal with whether evil — especially when it comes costumed as good — can ever be reasoned with. They deal with what happens when idealistic young people give their all to causes that turn out to be false, as happened with the young students who rioted out of such noble motives in Paris in l968; and as happened to the young believers who abandoned everything to join the Communist Revolution in Russia and gave their all to it, only to learn, too late, that it was a devouring monster whose hatred was aimed at them; and as is happening in the Arab world today, where so many young people are ready to kill others, and to kill themselves, instead of understanding that Israel is not the enemy — hatred is.
And they deal, most importantly, with the saving power of memory to keep us sane, and to keep us linked to others and to our innermost selves.
Read this novel and you will be privileged to tiptoe into the soul of Elie Wiesel. And read this novel because it will give you a glimpse into your own soul as well.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent book reviewer in Jewish and general journals in America and abroad. He is co-editor of “So That Your Values Live On: A Treasury of Jewish Ethical Wills,” and editor of the three volumes of “The World of the High Holy Days.”