September 2012

Josh Zajdman

fiction

Hostage by Elie Wiesel, translated by Catherine Temerson

Remember Bernie Madoff? Elie Wiesel certainly does. As a result of Madoff's now legendary Ponzi scheme, Wiesel lost his life savings and his charity lost upward of fifteen million dollars. That one Jew would defraud another, let alone the world's most famous Holocaust survivor, remains a point of grievance in the Jewish community.

Needless to say, it elevates the reprehensibility more than a couple notches. In February 2009, at a New York Times roundtable discussing the scheme, Wiesel sounded off. Madoff is "a sociopath, psychopath, it means there is a sickness, a pathology. This man knew what he was doing. I would simply call him thief, scoundrel, criminal." When pushed further, Wiesel freely admitted, "I am not a genius of finance. I teach philosophy and literature -- and so it happened." This idea of a heinous act occurring, seemingly out of the blue, is the genesis of Wiesel's first work since the Madoff fiasco, a novel entitled Hostage. An apt title for a reading experience that leaves readers feeling as if they can't escape from the unrelenting waves of ideology cascading over their heads. One wonders if, or, more aptly, how Wiesel's more recent misfortune filtered into the genesis of the novel.

Unlike the subtle and nuanced masterworks in his trilogy of Holocaust works, Hostage serves more as a mouthpiece for aggravation, uncertainty, anxiety, and a host of other negative emotions instead of offering few, if any, enlightening, humanizing, or even thought-provoking points. It's more of a jingoistic, overemotional screed against the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and a host of other themes that merit capitalization and a serious consideration. It's not that Wiesel's consideration isn't serious -- he takes it very seriously -- but, more problematically, that it isn't nuanced. It's the complexity of these issues that has warranted the many considerations, across several media, over the years. It's familiar territory for Wiesel, but without any of his trademark delicacy or trenchancy on display. Therein lies the most frustrating aspect of this novel. It doesn't transcend strife and elevate despair and thorny moral issues to a broader consideration of humanity. Instead, the seemingly random kidnapping of Shaltiel Feigenberg is conducted as an affront to Jews and Judaism, and seemingly expected to resonate mightily among them. There is the injection of moral quandary and philosophizing as Feigenberg tries to engage his kidnappers, but that only makes the novel feel a bit like a force-fed goose, with the final result being a barely palatable paté.

The novel opens with an italicized, overly melodramatic, it's-a-small-world type of dinner, functioning as a ham-fisted framework for revisiting the details of Feigenberg's kidnapping. "How could it not be? Didn't they come to celebrate the life of a man and the freedom of men? Policemen and intelligence agents, Americans and Israelis, friends and members of Shaltiel's family, they all feel they are entitled to it, to this privilege." One can picture the fadeout and plinky-plonky piano music accompaniment should the movie be made. Distressingly, this is an incredibly adaptable novel with very little interiority. The first portion of the novel exudes an ill-fitting Tom Clancy-like vibe as government agencies, wire services, and newspapers weigh in on the kidnapping.

Feigenberg is presented by Wiesel as a kind of Everyman or Patient Zero, the unfortunate first case of something much bigger than him. Coincidentally, this is where the editorializing begins. "This tragedy, the very first of its kind took place in 1975. It caused a considerable stir in the media at the time, in Jewish communities and in so-called diplomatic circles. Shaltiel Feigenberg, a discreet man with no status or fortune, became famous all over the world. But not for long. Who remembers him today?"

Wiesel can't seem to decide whether Feigenberg shall be viewed as a microcosmic example of the conflict, an allegory, or a full-fledged character. Accordingly, the flitting between the depictions of victimization, storytelling (somehow Feigenberg's career), and that of ur-Jew, espousing themes of family, community, faith and endurance in the face of oppression, and the legacy of the Holocaust, is exhausting.

All this took place three years after the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, one year before the Israeli Entebbe rescue operation, and well before the abductions and suicide murders that are so common nowadays.

The depiction of the kidnappers in Hostage is especially aggravating. What should be two complicated characters who are ruining the lives of Feigenberg and his family while changing the course of history seem like crudely rendered, examples of xenophobia.            

"The caller had a European accent."

"Was it German perhaps?" Saul asked. He had hunted down Nazis in the past.

"No a singsong accent. French or Italian."

The problem with this lies in the stereotypical Middle Eastern-versus-Jewish conflict that can't seem to be displayed thoughtfully and without broad strokes.

Before we even understand what Feigenberg is charged with doing, or even where he is, we are confronted by his attempts at coping in his dire, but as yet unexplained, situation. "Oh, to unravel the fabrics of dreams and fantasies that inhabit the prisoner, to disentangle the time and duration that engross philosophers, the conscience of the ascetic and the intuition of psychologists, the fire and anathema of moralists so they won't turn into illusions and lies. Tell me, how is it done?"

There lies the question that drives, if you can call it that, the narrative. How does one conscionably kidnap, maim, hurt, discriminate, kill? How are such awful things occurring in our world? How have such awful things already occurred, and what are we to do but bear witness? And always, always, always, remember. Whether it's something as large and gaping as the Holocaust or perceived slights among friends and family, Hostage is irritatingly focused on never forgetting. But with so little substance beneath these constant reminders, one is hard-pressed to remember what we aren't supposed to forget in the first place.

Hostage by Elie Wiesel, translated by Catherine Temerson
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307599582
224 pages