HOSTAGE. By Elie Wiesel. Knopf. 214 pages. $25.95.
Mystical Jewish thought holds that the 22 foundational Hebrew letters are the building blocks of creation. The Torah, or sacred scroll containing the five books of Moses, is imbued with life through the sanctified act of the scribe who diligently, carefully, quietly etches by hand each character.
Words in the Jewish tradition do more than convey a story or a sense of meaning. The use of words is to be alive. Through words, the connections to the divine are affirmed. With words, which must be chosen with care and respect, humanity is set apart. It is a unique responsibility, one Elie Wiesel understands well and attempts to convey in his new novel, “Hostage.”
Wiesel, it should be noted, was unable to write about his experiences for 10 years after his release from Auschwitz in 1945. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, he did not yet know that his destiny was to live, and by living to bear witness through language.
In the years since, he has published almost constantly, in fiction and essay forms, exploring philosophical ideas concerning man’s responsibility to man, the function of memory, the workings of religion and ethnicity and the politics of a turbulent age.
His most recent novel is in some ways a return to these favorite themes, though it carries none of the force and weight of his early trilogy, consisting of “Night,” “Dawn” and “The Accident.”
The new book uses the excuse of a political kidnapping to plumb ideas about survival, life’s purpose, the balm (and abrasions) of memory and other matters. In a way, it is more an exploration of the mind’s terrain (via the thoughts of protagonist Shaltiel Feigenberg, a storyteller by profession and son of a Holocaust survivor) than a story about an abduction.
Ostensibly, “Hostage” is about a Brooklyn Jew whose childhood roots were firmly planted in the corrupt soil of Eastern Europe during the rise and reign of the Third Reich, and whose sensibilities, therefore, are forever influenced by that early experience. An interest in chess saves him. A brother with Communist sympathies escapes to the Soviet Union. A Soviet soldier befriends him. Later, a sage whom Shaltiel meets on a train becomes a mentor. A new wife influences his sense of self and view of the world. His storytelling — a way to share sacred words, to advance tradition, to fulfill an obligation — sustains him.
When he is taken hostage by a Palestinian and Italian, both members of a terrorist cell seeking to free Palestinian prisoners, his storytelling comes in handy, though it strikes him that perhaps words are insufficient when faced with torture and death.
During the course of four days in a dark basement, Shaltiel’s mind wanders the domain of memory, raising ghosts and recounting scenes from his youth. All the while a deadly political game is played in which the use of violence is defended by the terrorists and repudiated by the hostage, in which the enormity of geopolitics is reduced to a hot conversation between captor and captive. “ ‘Whether you admit it or not, from the fact of being Jewish, you’ve got Muslim blood on your hands,’ (Ahmed) says to his prisoner. ‘What the Jews are doing at home, they’re doing in your name too.’
“ ‘No, no, no!’ protests Shaltiel, who hasn’t yet understood the meaning of this accusation. ‘I’m Jewish, but I’ve never humiliated anyone. I’ve never committed a crime!’ ”
Here, Wiesel is touching on an important theme — the way Zionism implicates all Jews, whether they like it or not — but he doesn’t explore it sufficiently. In his ambition, Wiesel attempts to cover a lot of ground in a few pages, leaving us with an oddly assembled novel that hews too closely to traditional storytelling techniques (chronology, flashback, character development) while at the same time striving to break things up a bit. The narrative shifts from first person to third, sometimes haphazardly.
Sometimes, Wiesel offers the reader profound insights and lovely ideas: “God created man and gave the storytellers the task of saying why.”
Sometimes his insights are banal, or historically lazy: “Revolution, thinks Shaltiel, it’s a noble concept, but a blood-drenched word. Its results are violence and transformation. It sparks the most human hope and the cruelest loss of hope.”
His choice to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a pretense for his ruminations was perhaps a mistake, for his view of the crisis is simplistic and incomplete. To do it justice, however, would have transformed this small ruminative volume into something akin to nonfiction, something less meaningful.
Nevertheless, “Hostage,” though it feels underdeveloped, is a notable addition to the Wiesel canon and worth reading for the insights he offers, as well as the insights we gain. For Wiesel, more than most, is in a position to remind us that with life — and the use of words — comes great responsibility.
Reviewer Adam Parker is the arts and book editor for The Post and Courier.