Hostage by Elie Wiesel is a short novel that compresses a modern day drama within a much longer history that stretches beyond the Holocaust to the origins of the Jewish faith.
The story line is as follows: For scant reason having to do with him as a particular Jew, Shaltiel is kidnapped in New York city by terrorists and held hostage in the hopes that his captors can effect an exchange--Shaltiel’s freedom for the freedom of three imprisoned Palestinian freedom fighters. The site of his incarceration is some kind of basement.
Shaltiel’s history is that as a boy he was saved from German extermination camps during World War II by being hidden in a basement (by a German officer), so the irony is apparent: here he is in a basement again, once a hostage, always a hostage.
He is abused and mistreated more in New York than he was in Eastern Europe during World War II. His modern day captors are a brutal Arab extremist and an Italian revolutionary who fundamentally is an anarchist but has allied himself with the Palestinian cause.
Much of the story occurs through Shaltiel’s memory of what happened to his family members during World War II and the Holocaust and what he recalls of his own life afterward, leading to his profession: he’s a story-teller, sometimes writer, and general memorialist of things Jewish, 20th century back to King David...and beyond that.
The tale emerges in bits and pieces: sometimes first person, sometimes third person, sometimes present tense, sometimes past tense, sometimes news clippings and bulletins, sometimes omniscient narration designed to set the stage for U.S./Israeli cooperation in rescuing Shaltiel. (They won’t negotiate as a matter of policy.)
The best sections of this novel have to do with Shaltiel’s frustrating love for his wife, Blanca; the flirtation one family member has with communism during World War II, and a lovely story about a man who plays a violin that has no strings.
A light haze of Jewish mysticism hangs over this novel. There are moments, vignettes, and anecdotes that acquire a dream-like quality, not only reflecting Shaltiel’s stress and pain but also his ongoing confusion about God, whom he never renounces, just as he never gives in to the demand that he sign some kind of statement denouncing Zionism and confirming the justice of the kidnappers’ demands.
Even as someone who has always believed that the Jews have a right to a Jewish state in Palestine, I’ve never believed the Palestinians didn’t have a similar right. In a sentence or two, Wiesel portrays them as casting away that right when they, in effect, did not agree to a two-state solution in the mid-1940s. Then the Palestinians are portrayed, through these kidnappers and their ranting, as determined to reclaim all of Palestine by means of violence.
History shows that yes, the Palestinians and their Arab brothers and sisters have employed violence numerous times against Israel. They’re doing it now out of Gaza. But there are two sides to every story, and this is a one-sided story. For a novel preoccupied with justice, that’s a problem. Rather than spell out the Palestinian perspective (which can be done in great detail), I’ll stick to purely novelistic issues for the moment and set the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict aside.
This could have been a more effective book if it focused more exclusively on Shaltiel’s relationships with the German who helped him survive, with his family, with Blanca, and with the relative who misguidedly adopted communism as his new religion, only to have Stalin drive him from Moscow to Jerusalem, where he reunited with his true faith.
Reviewers and readers aren’t welcome to rewrite authors’ books for them, but my sense is that Wiesel could have accomplished more by using less of the material he packs into a 213 page novel. He offers an abundance of story-telling wisdom, which flows naturally through Shaltiel the story-teller’s mind, that could easily have been exploited to better effect. Ultimately, this is a cosmic and religious meditation; at least that’s where I think its strength lies and the thematic framework within which Wiesel has written with great power for so long.
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