Rescued as a child, rootless as an adult

August 21, 2005|By Arthur M. Lesley | Arthur M. Lesley,Special to the Sun

NOVEL

THE TIME OF THE UPROOTED

By Elie Wiesel, translated by David Hapgood. Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pages.

The Time of the Uprooted is Elie Wiesel's 13th novel since Night, his stunning memoir of Auschwitz that helped to establish Holocaust literature in Western languages.

Wiesel's strongest novels confronted acute moral problems that the Holocaust made urgent. The Gates of the Forest, The Town Beyond the Wall and Dawn were taut and innovative, in the early '60's, when they subordinated the events and feelings to an intellectual struggle with new varieties of perversity. The Nazi catastrophe divided the consciousness of the adolescent boy of Night into mythic and philosophical poles: Hasidic characters, concepts and stories, all expressed in terms from the Hebrew Bible, wrestle with modern philosophies of hope and nihilism.

This double consciousness everywhere finds extreme contrasts, between innocence and evil, sensuality and asceticism, Jewish and Christian, that cannot be resolved, but exist unstably as oxymoron and paradox.

The Time of the Uprooted focuses on Gamaliel, a Hungarian Jewish boy who was entrusted by his mother in 1944 to a beautiful, Christian Budapest cabaret singer, Ilonka, to save him from the Nazis. Now a ghost writer in New York, Gamaliel tries to keep his self-respect by writing his own Secret Book, a failed Hasidic wonder-tale about the fateful encounter between a young Hasidic leader, a rebbe, and an archbishop, which leads to the catastrophic destruction of Hungarian Jews.

As the Nazis occupy Hungary, in March 1944, the rebbe's kabbalistic meditations to save the Jews intrude on the archbishop's dreams. The archbishop summons the rebbe to ask him to stop disturbing his sleep, and the rebbe pleads with him to protect the Jews from impending annihilation. Gazing into the rebbe's eyes, the archbishop recognizes him as Jesus and offers to rescue him, but not the Jewish community. The rebbe refuses. The archbishop, acting like Pilate, allows the Nazis to destroy the rebbe and the Jews, thereby betraying the faith of his Church.

The Secret Book, then, gives a parable of cosmic events that forced all the uprooted, the Jews who survived and the Christians who were abandoned by their Church, to face their own choices between life and death.

In contrast to the archbishop, the earthy Ilonka heroically sacrifices everything, even her self-respect, to save Gamaliel and keep her promise to his mother. The rescued child grows up to be a stateless, rootless, displaced person, who must struggle to make an identity, to be recognized as belonging somewhere, and to build a family. Now in New York, after losing love and family, Gamaliel is asked one day to go to a hospital to interpret for a moribund Hungarian woman, whom he hopes might be Ilonka. He hopes that finding his substitute mother will reconnect him to his primary emotions and his integrity.

The search for roots is a widespread concern in a time when millions of people from all continents are refugees, economic migrants, displaced persons.

Gamaliel's rootlessness is emotional, but most obviously it is linguistic. The cultures of both Hasidic sectarians and central Europeans that shaped the several languages of Gamaliel and his author are obscured in English translation, so that speech occurs as if in a vacant wilderness. Nevertheless, he learns to recognize other sufferings besides his own, and he finds other damaged people with whom to begin again.

Gamaliel's hope of finding Ilonka suddenly lights up that vacant wilderness and urgently draws him to the speechless Hungarian woman, whose identity is the key to his own.

Arthur M. Lesley teaches Hebrew and Jewish literature at Baltimore Hebrew University.

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