September 9, 2012

Kidnapping goes wrong in Wiesel’s ‘Hostage’

“Hostage” by Elie Wiesel, translated by Catherine Temerson (Alfred A. Knopf, 214 pages, $25.95)

“Hostage” by Elie Wiesel, translated by Catherine Temerson (Alfred A. Knopf, 214 pages, $25.95)

It’s hard to read Elie Wiesel’s new novel, “Hostage,” without thinking about his classic Holocaust recollection, “Night.” That’s partly because both deal with captivity, and even more with questions of faith and identity and our place in the universe, at a moment when such elements appear to have been rendered moot.

But even more, “Hostage,” like “Night,” begs the question of how we read it — of the type of document it is.

In the case of the earlier book, that tension has to do with the line between fact and fiction, between literal and metaphorical truth.

With “Hostage,” the tensions are somewhat different — and not just because it’s a slighter piece of work.

Shaltiel Feigenberg, a Jewish storyteller from Brooklyn, is kidnapped in 1975 by a pair of self-styled terrorists. But Wiesel’s didactic impulses so overwhelm his story that he leaves Shaltiel’s ordeal to stand, primarily, as a frame for his creator’s ideas. Is the novel testimony or advocacy?

“Later on,” Wiesel writes, “alone in the musty smelling basement, Shaltiel wondered: Didn’t he live in the Tower of Babel? Didn’t we all? In those days, languages were all mixed together, words had no more meaning, people didn’t understand their fellow men. My listeners, what are their languages? My torturers, what is their true language? What is the point of making words to tell the truth about life if no one listens to you or understands you?”

What Wiesel suggests is the futility of story in the face of obliteration, which was also one theme of “Night.” He makes the point explicit as Shaltiel plumbs his memories, beginning with World War II and spiraling outward to his childless marriage; his devotion to his father, a survivor of Auschwitz; and always his love of chess.

Even as he plays a kind of mental chess with his captors, arguing politics, despairing of his survival, Shaltiel begins to lose connection to the world. “The hours drag on,” Wiesel observes, “heavy with anxiety. Shaltiel, in his delirium, becomes more and more pessimistic.”

Wiesel takes us into the heart of the experience: How do we survive in a universe where all logic, all reason, has been stripped away and we are at the mercy of chaotic forces?

But without giving anything away, there is, finally, no real sense of threat in this novel — because Wiesel telegraphs Shaltiel’s survival from the outset, and because we never quite believe in the world he creates.

When one of the kidnappers, an Italian, imagines the future, it is the future we occupy today. “The day is not far off,” he tells Shaltiel, “when suicide terrorism will be global.”

There’s a point to be made here, about the rhetoric of revolution, but it is both too clever and not clever enough.

“Outside, life triumphs,” Wiesel writes in the middle of the novel, describing the end of World War II. But in “Hostage,” that life remains at a distance, beyond the walls of Shaltiel’s basement cell.

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