For over half a century, Elie Wiesel has eloquently expressed the moral, spiritual, and physical fortitude it took to survive Auschwitz. “Night,” his classic memoir about the atrocities of the Holocaust — both personal and universal — not only established a literary canon, but also unequivocally proved the transformative power of words.
Fifty-seven books later, Wiesel’s writing is no less influential. “Hostage,” his newest work to appear in English, is a novel set in 1975, just three short years after a radical Palestinian group murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. Yet terrorism is still not integral to the American lexicon and acts of terrorism are wholly foreign, literally and figuratively, to Americans.
Shaltiel Feigenberg’s random abduction in Brooklyn, N.Y., forever jettisons any notions of American safety or even normalcy. Shaltiel is the eponymous hostage, and through his stream of consciousness, Wiesel focuses on the raw motivation of his abductors. Although taking a hostage in New York is more profitable than in Tel Aviv or Paris or London, Shaltiel’s captors are not looking for money: “That they could get more easily and with less risk. Others give the money. They are interested in playing their part in the life and history of Islam.” They are interested in glory and immortality.
Who understands that impetus better than a storyteller? Shaltiel Feigenberg is a professional storyteller, a man who reveres language and memory. Like the Torah from which he derives inspiration, his work honors both written and oral histories. A reader may come to the novel thinking that a storyteller as the main character, particularly a character that has so many obstacles to overcome, strains credulity. But this is a multilayered story, encompassing large swaths of history, which Shaltiel weaves into the novel.
Shaltiel’s tormentors, a radical Italian mercenary and a dedicated Palestinian revolutionary, have dubbed his kidnapping “Operation Storyteller.” Notable as the first “operation [carried out] on American soil,” this kidnapping also demonstrates that terror, “that refined prison of modern times,” extends beyond the four walls of a cell to infiltrate the mind.
Wiesel uses Shaltiel’s abduction as a successful framing device. Intermittently tortured and taunted to disavow the Jewish people, Shaltiel has a lot of time and space to reflect on his life story. Born in Romania, he was a child prodigy at chess whose skill caught the eye of an SS officer. In an unusual arrangement, Shaltiel, his father, and cousin were hidden in the officer’s house in exchange for unlimited playing time with the boy. Although bloodless, the chess scenes are a form of mental torture and Shaltiel the child is acutely aware of how important it is to pace his victories over the German. “How can one entrust wooden pieces with the life and death of loved ones?” asks the young boy.
Wiesel’s ultimate aim — his life’s work — is to present the unique and organic lessons of the Holocaust to successive generations. To make testimonies of survivors available and cogent to a generation that may never meet a Holocaust survivor or personally hear testimony about the concentration camps. Through Shaltiel, the lessons of genocide gain traction and currency. “‘Never again’ becomes more than a slogan,” writes Wiesel. “It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow.”
But a novel about a terrorist act that took place almost four decades ago has its pitfalls. Shaltiel’s imprisonment feels oddly retrospective, blunting some of the heightened emotions. Yes, Shaltiel is treated brutally both physically and mentally, but the tension never reaches a fever pitch. Throughout much of the novel Shaltiel feels more like an envoy of the Jewish people than the victim of a brutal crime. And “Hostage” falls just short of psychological thriller or political novel. Ultimately, though, Wiesel’s story is a paean to the strength of memory and the words that express it. In the end, “Hostage” is its own renewed prayer, promise, and vow.
This review was originally published in the August 24, 2012 edition of the Boston Globe