Wiesel's 'Judges' -- a novel in search of structure

August 25, 2002|By Mike Pride | By Mike Pride,Special to the Sun

The Judges, by Elie Wiesel. Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pages, $24.

Right and wrong. Truth and lies. Good and evil. Life and death. The reader can forgive Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, his obsession with the great moral questions of human existence.

Indeed, it is sad to contemplate the path of Wiesel's career. Here is a man who established his literary reputation with a memoir of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp nearly 60 years ago. Yet still today, his pen must engage a world in which Jews are killed simply because they are Jews and, in an equation favoring their enemies, they kill in return.

At times in his new novel, The Judges, Wiesel animates the big questions through sympathetic characters cast by circumstance into moral tangles or mortal terror, or both. Unfortunately, the book founders on a weak central plot.

The premise is this: A plane out of New York is forced down by a snowstorm in Connecticut. Five passengers find shelter in the home of a mysterious stranger known only as the Judge. Assisted by a hunchback, the Judge gradually convinces the five that before they leave, one must die. Time hangs heavy as the passengers ponder their interrupted journeys and their fate.

For the moral questions that Wiesel is so well qualified to explore, this is a useful setting. As the core of a novel, at least this novel, it is a contrivance.

The book's strength is in the recollections of the stranded passengers, including the story of a passenger named Yoav and his best friend. The two are brothers in arms, commandos in the struggle against Arab terrorists. When his best friend is killed on a failed mission, it falls to Yoav to inform his wife of the death.

Yoav and the new widow have a history. The night she met her husband, the woman first propositioned Yoav, who spurned her. Later, she tried to force herself on him, only to be caught in the act by her husband.

The wife lied to her husband, telling him that Yoav was the aggressor in this encounter. When the husband confronted his friend Yoav, Yoav's wife came to the rescue. She said that Yoav had indeed been the guilty party but that she had forgiven him and his friend should, too.

But the friend has left a posthumous letter disclosing that he knew the truth all along. His wife had confessed to him. This, he wrote, had only strengthened his regard for Yoav, who had been willing to sacrifice their friendship to save his friend's marriage.

The Judges is filled with such vignettes and parables built out of life's complexities, some based on actual events. An archivist finds a document exposing the Nazi past of an Austrian bigwig whose policies now favor Israel. A beautiful woman who has been cruel to her many lovers imagines that she has at last found true love. A religious teacher recalls the mystic who has comforted him in times of peril.

But the stranded passengers never interact in meaningful ways, and their life stories seldom intertwine. Although some of Wiesel's fragments are compellingly human, The Judges has more glue in its binding than it has in its plot.

Mike Pride is the editor of the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's capital newspaper, where he has worked since 1978. A former Nieman fellow at Harvard University, he has earned the National Press Foundation's editor of the year award. With Mark Travis, he is the co-author of My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fighting Fifth.

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