Bookmark: Not the whole story

No one denies Elie Wiesel the right to keep writing about the Holocaust, but his latest novella fails to live up to its great potential.

November 20, 2010 22:13
4 minute read.
ELIE WIESEL: Obama is very serious in his pursuit

Elie Wiesel 311. (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)


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In my college public speaking class, points were automatically deducted if you had to keep sweeping your hair out of your eyes during a presentation.

The professor claimed that the only speaker she’d ever encountered who could get away with this normally distracting gesture was Elie Wiesel, because his message was so extraordinarily compelling.

With all due respect to the Nobel laureate, I am not prepared to extend the same blanket clemency to his written words. Wiesel’s monumental corpus of literature well deserves the awards and accolades it has garnered.

But The Sonderberg Case frankly fails to live up to its great potential. It is a half-baked novella that deserves to be a full-bodied novel. Even if it could be said that the English translation is lacking, and I am not in a position to judge that aspect, the book appears to be more an outline of a story than it is a story.

The idea ostensibly forming the core plot is certainly intriguing. The protagonist, drama critic Yedidyah Wasserman, is asked to cover a murder trial by analyzing it as one would a stage play.

In truth, the book is not so much about the trial, or even Yedidyah’s coverage of it, as it is about “the Tragedy” – in other words, the Holocaust.

In a disjointed narrative that alternates randomly between first and third person, Wiesel attempts to demonstrate a commonality between the German defendant and Yedidyah, who apparently has discovered only in adulthood that he was a child survivor. (His early memories need the help of a hypnotherapist to emerge from repression, the stuff of one of the better scenes in the book.)

As it became clear that this forced undercurrent is actually the overriding theme of the novel, I felt a sense of guilty irritation. Guilty, because after all, doesn’t Wiesel deserve to keep writing about the cataclysmic event that shattered his world and shaped his oeuvre? Irritated, because despite references to “the Tragedy” in the first pages, I believed he was ready to explore a promising new literary angle.

Using a court case as a springboard to a deeper theme has been attempted with success by other authors. In Snow Falling on Cedars, for example, David Guterson flawlessly integrated a rich depiction of a murder trial with an engrossing back-story of Japanese- Americans’ incarceration in California concentration camps during World War II.

The same sort of device might have worked in Sonderberg if it were well developed. Instead, there is only stark raw data concerning both the trial and Yedidyah. The reader does not get to sample a single one of his newspaper reports. Instead, there are streams of consciousness like this:
“Is Werner Sonderberg playing with words when he says he is ‘not guilty but not innocent’?  What does he mean? That he’s innocent but also a bit guilty? Can a person be both at the same time? How could reason accept such a thing? Could God not exist? Could it be that the angel of death no longer exists? Can he die? In the theater, who could incarnate him to make him visible? A clown maybe? Or an object?”

Of the many interrogative passages in this book, some do read elegantly, as is befitting their author. In reflecting on a trip to Israel to see his sons, Yedidyah ponders: “How was I to reconcile Auschwitz and Jerusalem? Would the former merely be the antithesis, the anti-event of the latter? If Auschwitz is forever the question, is Jerusalem forever the answer? On the one hand the darkness of the abyss, on the other the dazzling light of daybreak? At Birkenau and Treblinka, the burning bush was consumed, but here the flame continues to warm the hearts of messianic dreamers.”

This all-too-brief foray into ruminations on the Holy Land is, unfortunately, typical of a narrative hobbled by dead-end plot elements and characters. Despite presenting what seemed to be a turning point for Yedidyah (“...when I returned to New York I was no longer the same”), the author immediately returns to the trial and never continues the episode that had been introduced as Yedidyah’s brief assignment as a special correspondent in Israel.

Neither is the potential of most of the characters exploited. These include Yedidyah’s actress wife, Alika, inexplicably furious at her husband over forsaking theater for law even though he is a journalist and not a practitioner of either of those professions; the couple’s twin sons, secular Jews with the unlikely names of Leibele and Dovid’l, about whom we know little; Kathy, a seductive newsroom secretary; and Dr. Feldman, a physician who periodically drops hints of some slow fatal illness to Yedidyah.

Indeed, The Sonderberg Case is perhaps best summed up by a passage where Yedidyah takes stock of his personal and professional accomplishments: “I go over the list of my most glaring shortcomings and my mediocre triumphs. More or less docile son, more or less acceptable student, failed actor, journalist with a still clumsy pen, inferior lover, troubled husband. So much for the negative. As for the positive: a kind of sincerity, courage and a need for lucidity.”

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