Thursday, December 3, 2009

Night by Elie Wiesel

[Spoiler warning] This is one of those books that’s been on the fringes of my awareness for quite a while - I thought I really ought to read it, but I was reluctant to because I thought I’d find it depressing. So I eventually picked it up on a trip to the bookstore, as it made a welcome interruption to Gravity’s Rainbow – out of one kind of madness into another.

Night is a short volume, only 112 pages of story, which, for the few of you who don’t know, describes Wiesel’s experience as a teenager in Transylvania in the Second World War, a Jew in a small, very devoutly religious Jewish community where he, the son of a well-educated storekeeper, was devoting his life to his religious studies.

The community is tightly knit and, you get the impression, quite insulated from the outside world; the war is a faraway thing, even when the foreign Jews are rounded up and deported from the town. One of them, Wiesel’s friend Moishe the Beadle, returns to warn the town of the danger of the Nazis, but nobody listens. By this time it is 1944, and the community is sure that the war will soon be over and they will be safe.

Inevitably, the German army arrives and the restrictions begin, then the displacement of the Jews from one ghetto to another. And yet still the community is optimistic. Looking at these scenes with historical hindsight made me want to scream alongside Moishe the Beadle – how could these people be so unaware? And yet it’s human nature to hope…

Of course they are transported to the camps. And of course what follows is a nightmare of separation, deprivation, starvation and brutality. Wiesel reports it all so simply; there’s an almost flat, unemotional quality to his writing that makes it quite possible to read unemotionally, even at the poignant moment when he watches his mother and younger sister walk away in the opposite direction, never to be seen again.

The aspect of this book that most deeply impressed me was the devotion of the Jews to God, even as they wondered where He was in all this horror. Even Wiesel, who professes to turn his back on a God who would let such things happen, constantly refers to Him even as he denies Him. There's much to be learned from the people in this book.

Wiesel sketches the brutalities he suffered and saw very sparely, without much detail. What he tells is enough. He moves the reader swiftly from day to day, week to week as the inmates are moved farther away from the liberating Allies. Then suddenly the narrative slows down to encompass the death of Wiesel’s father, and you can truly feel the numbness of the brutalized teenage boy who is barely able to feel compassion through his hunger. It’s powerful stuff. Then the story moves swiftly again, through the liberation of the camps, and ends with Wiesel looking at himself in a mirror – the face of a corpse. “The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.” Was this the first time he envisaged writing a story that had himself as its main character?

What can you say to such memories? I feel as if I’m writing a summary rather than a review, because the only possible response to this story is respect. Yet the writing has much to commend it – this edition is a new translation by Wiesel’s wife, and the writing is clear, simple, direct and immediate. I give this book the “life-changing” tag simply because it is a familiar horror story seen from the inside. Survivors of such events are rarely able to speak of them, so it is a privilege to listen to a man who did not spare himself from the task of writing his story.


Pamala Knight said...

I loved this book. The writing is so sparse and beautiful in many, many places. You hit the nail on the head in saying that it doesn't read like many memoirs, like the author has put a distance between the story and themselves. The reader is immersed in the tale and gets the full experience of the horror without being dragged through every detail of the violence and gore.

Thanks for the review.

Froog said...

This is a devastating book. I have used some passages from it in teaching in Chinese colleges (and urged my students to read the whole thing, since it's so short). There's very little awareness about the Holocaust here in China (their education system - not unnaturally - lays a lot of emphasis on the atrocities committed by the Japanese, but largely overlooks the war in other theatres and the Nazis). I'd get frustrated sometimes that the kids would react with a kind of blankness - they'd be processing the English, and perhaps registering something like disgust at what the writer was telling them; but there wasn't any real response to the content of the story. They seemed not to get that this actually happened.

I was particularly torn up by the final section where he comes to blame himself for his father's death because he chose to get him out of Auschwitz - not realising that the liberation was so close, not realising how terrible the 'death march' back to Germany would be.

It's one of the great Holocaust testimonies, and perhaps the most accessible. Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Roman Frister's The Cap are very powerful too. For me, this is the 'If you haven't read this, why not?' list.