Confronting the mysterious

Alan Lelchuk’s new novel takes a fictional look at the unknown life – and death – of Raoul Wallenberg.

Alan Lelchuk (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alan Lelchuk
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Alan Lelchuk’s new novel, Searching for Wallenberg, is an attempt to prove that the best way to confront the mysterious and the unknown is with imagination.
Faced with a historical event impossible to unravel, Lelchuk has turned to fiction to try to make sense of why more facts have never been uncovered about the fate of Righteous Gentile Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who single-handedly saved close to 120,000 Jews from certain extermination during the Holocaust.
Though Wallenberg is known to have perished at some point, the historical record is devoid of information on exactly where or when or by whose hand the savior of so many lives himself came to his death.
The novel, narrated by Manny Gellerman, a modern-day professor of history in New Hampshire, is an attempt to answer some of these questions by depicting Wallenberg and his powerful family – described as the “Rockefellers of Sweden” – as flawed human beings, despite his extraordinary deeds.
Gellerman, spurred into action after reading a graduate student’s thesis on Wallenberg, sets out to uncover the truth of what happened to the Swede after he was arrested by the Soviets in 1945.
This is where the novel is at its most successful.
Imagined meetings with Wallenberg himself, having the narrator actually witness crucial moments in his life up to the final jarring but convincing death scene, are wonderful highlights.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Lelchuk explains the jarring juxtaposition of the ordinariness of Gellerman’s life and the gravity and poignancy of the Wallenberg scenes.
“Budapest was extraordinary,” Lelchuk says, and “Wallenberg himself was an extraordinary guy.” By contrast he notes, “The American reality of a professor’s life” has to “seem more ordinary.”
The novel grew out of Lelchuk’s 2001 trip to Budapest, when he was teaching and living three blocks from a recently installed statue of Wallenberg. As he walked by it to go shopping, he wondered who the person it represented really was.
Out of that wonder came this “hybrid blend of history and fiction,” the author explains, careful to say his fiction is “different” from “historical fiction.” This novel, he explains, is “fiction that uses history in it.” Unlike historical fiction, he is not “recreating something in history” but attempting to “fill in the gaps. History can’t do that.”
Lelchuk spent the years since 2001 doing research in the various places Wallenberg studied, lived, worked and was probably imprisoned, including Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Wallenberg studied architecture; his hometown of Stockholm; his workplace of Budapest; and Moscow, where Wallenberg was interned in prison and his Soviet interrogator still lived.
The author said this novel is the most complicated work he has written, since after spending 10 years doing “various aspects of research,” he had to find “the right kind of way of delivering it in a credible novel that is also readable.”
To that end he created Gellerman, a professor of history who “has access to this past as a historian, taught in his training,” but who ends up using “fictional means” to get at the past. Lelchuk says the writing process was his “own education about how to write history.”
Though he says that he “invents a lot, based on historical grounding and research” he believes what historian Michael Walzer says on the book jacket, that “sometimes we are better served by a novelist’s imagination than by a professional historian’s scholarship.”
In the course of writing, Lelchuk discovered just how complex Wallenberg was.
His protagonist says: “In truth, there were several Raouls, some imagined, some real. For didn’t all complex souls require several selves and demand multiple interpretations?” Wallenberg, Lelchuk says, is a “composite figure with one name.”
Lelchuk has lived and taught all over the world, including in Russia, Italy, Germany and at prestigious universities across the US. He is no stranger to Israel either, having served as a Fulbright writer- in-residence at the University of Haifa in 1986-1987.
But he was most eager to discuss with the Post his stay in 1976-1977 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, an international cultural institution. During that time, he recollects, Teddy Kollek was mayor, and he used the center to invite artists from all around the world. Playwright Arthur Miller, violinist Isaac Stern and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargos Llosa all put in appearances. The city that year, Lelchuk recalls, was “bristling with energy,” as the country was only 28 years old; he felt an “energy and optimism that was palpable.”
He has built relationships with a number of Israeli writers, including A.B.
Yehoshua and Amos Oz. In 1982 he and Gershon Shaked published 8 Great Hebrew Short Novels, motivated by the fact that he “realized a lot of this literature was not known [outside the world of Hebrew- speakers].” It was updated and reprinted in 2005 by Toby Press.
Now, those readers who aren’t familiar with the life and story of Raoul Wallenberg can explore that world through Lelchuk’s fascinating novel.