Song of the exile

Elie Wiesel's latest work is a lyrical meditation on loss, identity and dispossession.

By TOVA MESSER
November 10, 2005 11:42
4 minute read.
elie wiesel book 88

elie wiesel book 88. (photo credit: )

 
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The Time of the Uprooted By Elie Wiesel Knopf 320pp., $25 Elie Wiesel's latest work is a lyrical meditation on loss, identity and dispossession. It masterfully steeps the reader in the mindset of its protagonist, who is at once mournful, sweet and impassioned. Employing the artistry of language to its fullest, it tells the complex and affecting story of Gamaliel, the eternal refugee who is cast from one exile to another. As a young child caught in World War II, Gamaliel flees Czechoslovakia for Hungary with his family. There he assumes a Christian identity in order to survive the war, and goes into hiding with a Christian cabaret singer who nearly single-handedly saves his life. Their relationship, as well as his separation from his parents, sets the stage for Gamaliel's later sense of guilt at the sacrifices he and others made to ensure his survival, and his longing for an enduring relationship. After the war, Gamaliel moves to Vienna and Paris, where he falls into a loveless marriage with a woman who ultimately makes him feel more alone than before. Gamaliel eventually settles in New York, finding solace and psychological refuge with fellow expats with whom he can pass the time and explore the meaning of life in the face of the losses they have each endured. Their stories and conversations are rich with existential and philosophical reflection. The reader accompanies the haunted Gamaliel through his mind when a word or image in the present suddenly brings him to another time and place. Thus, the narrative weaves between Gamaliel's childhood in hiding from the Nylos (Hungarian Nazis), the trials of his adult life, and his present circumstance, in which he has been mysteriously called to a local hospital to see an elderly Hungarian woman whom he suspects might be his beloved protector from so long ago. The narration is also peppered with excerpts from the fiction that Gamaliel is working on in his profession as a ghostwriter. Readers can find in these excerpts and their editing by Gamaliel subtle indications of his frame of mind at the time. THE STORY is laden with theology and replete with biblical references; Gamaliel finds in the Torah and rabbinic writings a mirror for both his suffering and celebration. One of the novel's themes of truth versus falsehood becomes apparent in Gamaliel's reflections on the deception inherent in his career as a ghostwriter: he writes stories that are published under the names of the wealthy men who commission them. The ability of words to betray hints at another intriguing, conceptual thread - the author's anthropomorphism of the "word": "Words could be a writer's best friend, but they could also be formidable opponents." Paradoxically, Gamaliel also conveys just the opposite: he muses about what he will leave behind - "just words... vanity of vanities: it's all absurd." It's almost as if, despite their vitality, words are unable to exactly articulate the nature of what they express, such as the intensity of the events he's experienced. Wiesel puts into the mouth of the child Gamaliel insights and challenges well beyond his years, lending the novel a fantastic air. However, neither this nor the sudden shiftings of time and place detract from the book's overall credibility; rather, it only enhances its lyrical and dramatic character. While Gamaliel confesses at the beginning that he delights in the tales of vagabonds and madmen, he says he wants "to pursue their thoughts as if they were wild horses, to hear them laugh and make others laugh, to intoxicate myself without wine, and to dream with my eyes open." Such references to a physically impossible but metaphorically ecstatic reality are not uncommon. The book can at times feel obscure and puzzling, and is reminiscent of Nabokov's anti-totalitarian novel about injustice and the absurd, Invitation to A Beheading. Also evoked is Kafka's portrayal of bureaucracy, alienation and guilt in The Trial. Additionally, the potency the author ascribes to words calls to mind Edmond Jab s's mosaic of rabbinic wordplay in From the Book to the Book. Critic Richard Stamelman has employed a description of Jab s's work that could easily be applied to The Time of the Uprooted: "Touched by a distance and an otherness that the language of the living cannot express in its serenity and distance... [it has a] tone of fatalistic resignation and [an] awareness of impending separation." That the novel's most prominent theme is the attempt to make sense of loss is not surprising, given Wiesel's personal history as a survivor, recounted in the near-autobiographical Night. A slightly less satisfying element of the novel is that it leaves some threads hanging, such as the result of his blossoming friendship with an attractive and compassionate doctor he meets at the hospital. Nevertheless, this dark and poignant account draws readers in with devastating success. It expresses the plight of the refugee and translates into prose the poetry of the wanderer; the novel's pathos is matched only by its beauty.

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