From Wiesel, an eloquent, transfixing parable; The Testament, by Elie Wiesel. Translated from the French by Marion Wiesel. New York: Summit Books. $13.95
This novel, which ends in laughter, begins in tears. But both the tears and laughter are rituals for survival in this transfixing account of a world which has claimed our attention and prayers for half a century.
"The Testament" is Elie Wiesel's first novel in eight years. Published first in France, it won the Prix Interallie 1980 and was nominated for the Prix Concourt.
The central character is a Jewish poet, Paltiel Kossova, but he is also, in a profound way, Everyman. Exposed to all the seizures of the 20th century, he is an innocent, an idealist with a persistent faith that reason can somehow prevail over madness and that the God of his fathers can ride out the storm.
His story comes to the reader intermittently, rather the way memory does.
We have author Wiesel himself present in the novel in true or fictional guise , offering friendship to a lonely, diffident young man at the Lod Airport in Israel. The man turns out to be Grischa Kossova, the son of poet-minstrel Paltiel, whom Stalin ordered shot in a purge of Jewish artists when Grischa was a small child. Paltiel was not a great poet, "his voice scarcely heard" but addressing the tenderness of the few who read his only book, "I Saw My Father in a Dream."
The son, Grischa, is a mute, but communication is established when Wiesel produces his copy of the same book as the youth has drawn from his pocket. Grischa writes on a pad, "My copy belongs to a certain Viktor Zupanev, a night watchman in Krasnograd."
In this way the journey backward and forward begins. Grischa, the mute, is the ideal messenger in a world which prefers silence to remembrance, unless an advocate demands to be heard. In this book the advocate is a "Testament."
Moving between father and son, lacing time together in such a way that continuity is not important and one man might be the other, the narrative follows Grischa as he learns about Paltiel -- the man "who lived a Communist and died a Jew," the loving son of gentle, pious parents, the idealist who set up within himself a struggle between religion and politics.
The tension is superb. The questions, the fears, the waitings, the wonders -- all that composed Paltiel -- mirror the history of a generation of idealists and the games that were played by a cynical society afraid of the future.
The first break in Grischa's search for his father's history had come when Zupanev, the night watchman, spoke of Paltiel to the lonely boy and began to weave his spell of stories. "Try to understand what I'm telling you. Each generation shapes its own truth. Who will tell our truth when the witnesses have been murdered? The mute poets. Are you ready?"
Grischa was ready, and so was Zupanev to prepare him for the father's own words, the Testament. For when Paltiel had been arrested and questioned day after night, yet failed to provide the information wanted by Stalinists, the chief magistrate had conceived the nicety of encouraging him to write the story of his life: "You are a poet; that is what counts." And, by the wonderful fortuity of the times, Zupanev was the stenographer who transcribed what Paltiel put down in his cell. Thus Zupanev became a kind of alter ego, preserving the notes in a secret drawer.
Paltiel had noted it all: his search in the Berlin of rising Nazism, in the Paris of the 1930s and the Spain of the Civil War, when the future was beginning to take shape, through the Jewish anti-Nazi network, helping those in danger to escape, in missions carried out as far as Palestine. He was a part of it all -- the betrayed revolutions, the search for messiahs, the defeats of brotherhood. By the time of the Soviet-Nazi pacts, his disillusionment was complete. Yet Russia was the only country that belonged to him, and he returned to welcome the war with a sickened spirit. Why he fell from grace had nothing to do with himself; he had been himself at all times; his arrest had to do with one more human betrayal and a final search for his Jewishness.
How much of the Testament is true, Grischa asked Zupanev.
Grischa has to find out in his own terms. He has to transcend his muteness.
"The Testament" is a remarkable experience. It is a fervent, eloquent, and disciplined account of the moral journeys endemic to our times.