The cost of a life in exile

How does one write about that which cannot be understood? Elie Wiesel tries yet again.

Certain writers have become synonymous with a specific genre: Larry McMurtry equals Westerns; Agatha Christie, mysteries. Tom Clancy will probably never pen a tender romance.

But perhaps no writer has revisited the same territory with as much sense of grim purpose as Elie Wiesel has the Holocaust - a term he was the first to use.

"The Time of the Uprooted," the 40th book by the Nobel Prize-winner, continues that work, but with a twist: Gamaliel Friedman, the protagonist, who is a writer by trade, believes it's impossible to record experiences "for the sake of history."

"I do not know how to revive those haunted faces, those silent voices who, through you, would summon us to hear them tell of their deaths and perhaps our own. All I can do is tell you that I can't do it - and shake your hand," Gamaliel writes to a Brooklyn shopkeeper who lost 12 family members in one day.

Of course, even as Gamaliel protests, Wiesel is at work unfurling both the history of Gamaliel and that of his refugee friends.

The duality reflects both Wiesel's famous statement that "to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all" and his belief that the Holocaust can never be fully explained. As he said in a 1996 interview: "I know that even if I found the words you wouldn't understand. It is not because I cannot explain that you won't understand, it is because you won't understand that I can't explain."

Wiesel, a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald camps, anticipates complaints that "Time of the Uprooted" reviews terrain that is too familiar, and offers a feisty defense within the book itself.

"I've heard it said that now we know everything about the Holocaust, that it's been picked apart, analyzed, demystified, that all its parts have been dismantled," he says through Bolek, Gamaliel's oldest friend. "Such is the arrogance of ignorance."

Those who have read Wiesel's first novel, "Dawn," will recognize themes and motifs throughout "The Time of the Uprooted." Gamaliel's friend Gad is a former Mossad agent.

Gad is also the name of the agent in "Dawn" who recruits Elisha to be a "terrorist" (Wiesel's own word). In both, death is described as an "angel ... that has a thousand eyes."

Elisha collects beggars, while Gamaliel "delights in madmen," and a mysterious wanderer figures in both their lives.

But where "Dawn" unspools the night before a teenager commits his first killing, "The Time of the Uprooted" loops slowly through an old man's past.

Gamaliel survived World War II thanks to Ilonka, a Christian cabaret singer who sheltered him despite torture and gang rape.

So when he is called to the bedside of a dying, disfigured woman who speaks only Hungarian, he can't help wondering if Ilonka somehow survived.

As he tries to unravel the key to the woman's identity, he reflects on his refugee existence. At this point, Gamaliel lives alone: His French wife killed herself, and his twin daughters have cut him out of their lives. His surrogate family consists of four fellow refugees: "Bolek with his secret, Diego with his stories of the Spanish Civil War, Yasha with his cat, Gad with his adventures."

Gamaliel's memories resonate powerfully, as do those of his friends, particularly Bolek, a Polish refugee who nearly walks off with the book.

But, like the hero of Nicole Krauss's "A History of Love", Gamaliel has written a secret book - a fictional meeting between a rabbi and an archbishop on the eve of World War II.

As is also the case in "History," that tale isn't nearly as interesting as the life of its author.

At times, Gamaliel's manuscript takes on almost an air of self-parody, as if it had been crafted by the wicked wit of Francine Prose, whose "A Changed Man" satirized a Holocaust survivor earlier this year.

Take the following passage, in which the archbishop dreams he's meeting with the pope, and instead encounters a Jewish man and the spirit of his dead mother: "Who is the Jew? By what right is he in the Pope's innermost sanctum? Now his mother comes to his rescue, saying, 'All these years, you didn't know that Christ was Jewish, too. It's my fault, my son; I should have taught you that when you were a child. And now...' 'And now what, Mama?'

'And now you know.' "

Fortunately, Wiesel doesn't spend too much time on the fictional archbishop - the Christian he's most interested in is Ilonka, "the blessed saint."

While it doesn't have the power of Wiesel's "Night" trilogy, "The Time of the Uprooted" grapples with the cost of life in exile and the way that memories can unsettle a person's sense of self at the same time that they elude capture by words.

He also has harsh words for those who he feels have taken solidarity a step too far.

"Survivor!" he writes. "For a long time now, Gamaliel's reaction to the word has been that it was cheapened.... Everyone wanted to be one. No need to have undergone a selection at Birkenau or the tortures of Treblinka.... 'We are all survivors.'... How to explain to them that, confronted with such deception, those who did indeed survive come to be ashamed of having really been there? How to tell them to let 'remembrance' rest in peace, because the dead took its key with them when they disappeared in smoke up the chimney?"

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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