It has been only two years since Nobel Peace Prize winner and noted holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel published a novel. His previous offering, The Sonderberg Case, also translated from French to English by Catherine Temerson, was weighed down by philosophy, asking more questions that it could ever answer. Wiesel has written more than fifty books, but few have succeeded in matching his famed memoir, Night, a powerful and penetrating examination of State terror.
Hostage, the author’s latest novel, is a slender volume readdressing that same theme. Shaltiel Feigenberg is a Romanian born Jewish storyteller living in Brooklyn. In 1975 he is snatched off the streets by two members of the Palestinian Revolutionary Action Group, a fictional terrorist organization. His captors, an Arab and an Italian, blindfold and imprison him in a basement and demand the release of three Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Feigenberg’s freedom. They also demand that he sign a “voluntary” declaration condemning the Jewish state for all crimes “committed against the unfortunate Palestinians”.
Being of no true political importance and of meager wealth, Shaltiel, son of a holocaust survivor, sits bound to a chair, baffled as to why he has been taken prisoner. Wiesel writes: “Will the person who has never been tortured ever know the solitude of the hostage, his humiliations, his incomprehension, his doubts?”
Hostage is a study of the complex series of emotional reactions which take place in the dark psychological terrain beneath the prisoner’s blindfold. Wiesel documents vividly the nauseous sense of disorientation, the rhythmic upset to the personal time frame, and the flinching anticipation of the torturer’s blow. His latest novel is also a celebration of a hostage’s survival instincts, with a specific emphasis on Shaltiel’s mental dexterity and resilience.
The author notes poignantly: “A man’s life, really, is not made up of years but of moments, all of which are fertile and unique”. These very moments keep Shaltiel alive. In his darkness, he recalls his past life: his childhood in Davarowsk before and during Nazi occupation, his brother’s involvement with the Communist party and journey to the Soviet Union, the ghettoization of the Jewish community and liquidation of the ghetto, his evasion of the death camps on account of a Nazi SD officer hiding him in his basement, the murder of his relatives, his father and cousin’s return from Auschwitz, his first encounter with his future wife Blanca at City College New York, and his restless wandering as a journalist in the Far East.
Shaltiel’s story is a meditation on the importance of memory. Each moment in the hostage’s history is presented by the author as a series of broken fragments. Some readers may criticize Wiesel’s writing style for being overly choppy, yet in this case it serves to mirror the hostage’s unsettled psychological state. Shaltiel flips frantically between past and present, drawing strength from memory in order to defend and sustain himself in the face of his captors. “Anything is better than chaos or amnesia,” writes Wiesel.
The ghosts of his past wrap around him as protectors. As he is being beaten viciously, the face of the burly Soviet Jewish soldier who helped liberate Davarowsk looms before him: “Piotr, where are you my friend? Come and help me!” Meanwhile, the memory of the mystic One-eyed Paritus, a recurring character in Wiesel’s writing, offers the captive philosophical sustenance.
Shaltiel’s kidnappers are aligned in their opposition to the “Zionist cause” yet via a Socratic line of questioning their prisoner succeeds in exposing the glaring disparities in their moral and political convictions. The Arab, Ahmed, is ruthless and bloodthirsty, born in a refugee camp, his brother killed by an Israeli commando and his father and grandfather stateless and living on alms, he is intent on reaping revenge. His communication is based on insults and threats alone, and Shaltiel finds it impossible to converse or reason with him. The Italian, Luigi, refers to himself as a political revolutionary. He believes that “fear is more tangible than promises,” and that violence alone can bring about radical political change. He underlines that he is not cruel, unlike his Arab comrade who, he remarks, would take the lives of children if it were to further his cause. Shaltiel senses that the Italian is open to political debate and begins to test his motives for the kidnapping.
It is in these protracted political debates that the novel goes astray. Readers will doubt that in his vulnerable position, Shaltiel could find the audacity to remind the men who hold his life in their hands of “a few political truths,” but this he does, remarking glibly: “It was only in 1947 that, for the first time, the concept of a legal independent Arab state in Palestine appeared on a resolution adopted by the United Nations…This resolution….had been accepted by Israel. The Arabs rejected it and chose violence instead. Had they accepted the partition plan, today Lydda and Jaffa would be part of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside a smaller, if not weaker, Jewish state.”
It is implausible that a hardened terrorist would allow his captive to lecture him at such length, or that a badly beaten prisoner would ever address his captor in such a patronizing manner. The debates which take place between Shaltiel and Luigi feel contrived – a vehicle for Wiesel’s political philosophies – but little more.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect the novel is that it fails to remain true to its own basic principles. Toward the end of the story the narrator comments “after all, the truth of the opposite camp is also a truth”. Sadly, the Palestinian truth is emphatically muted. The Arab character is kept at a distance from the reader and seen only through his explosions of violence and hatred towards his prisoner – his life story reduced to little more than a footnote. Shaltiel remarks “I am not an enemy of Islam”, and yet there remains a distinct indifference to the Palestinian ‘right to return’, whereby the author cannot mask his Zionist commitments.
Insightful and moving in part, Hostage is an important novel in terms of its exploration of hostage psychology. For survivors of political terror, Wiesel’s message remains emphatic: there is hope and strength in memory – never forget. And yet the author’s blunt dismissal of the Arab viewpoint, his oversimplification and dehumanization of his one Arab character serves only to sully this message, denying the narrative of what could prove a valuable multi faceted political perspective. Wiesel’s novel discusses political chains of violence and ultimately advocates the importance of words and discussion as a means to peace, but it is a peace that can be met on the author’s rigid terms alone.