History as Myth
by Elie Wiesel.
Random House. 283 pp. $7.95.
Elie Wiesel has been working at his fiction of suffering for a quarter of a century. His personal project has been to keep the wounds of Auschwitz open by repeatedly pouring the salt of new literary reconstructions upon them, and thus to prevent the collective Jewish memory—and his own—from quietly letting the wounds heal. His latest novel, The Oath, is significant not for its originality or power—twenty-five years is a long time, and Wiesel is now repeating his own clichés—but rather because it is an attempt to bring his project to self-consciousness. Though it includes an episodic recounting of persecution and pogrom, The Oath is actually about the telling of the story itself.
Azriel, an old and very mysterious survivor of the destruction of the village of Kolvillag, is confronted by a young man, unnamed, who cannot come to grips with the Holocaust and therefore wishes to die. Azriel understands the young man's despair, but cannot help him. Only the telling of the story of Kolvillag will redeem his pain, but Azriel has taken an oath never to tell what he has seen. Were he to speak out, the murdered of Kolvillag would hold him responsible. This was Moshe the madman's idea, on the eve of the pogrom: the endless cycle of Jewish suffering and Jewish recollection, he had said, must be stopped. But if the suffering will continue, at least the recollection can end. And so an oath of silence was imposed upon the entire community of Kolvillag—only silence, said Moshe, could finally break the pattern of Jewish history. The murderers came to Kolvillag, and Azriel alone, bound to silence, survived. And now, a new generation demands to understand, and asks difficult and inevitable questions. Azriel looks painfully at the young man, and realizes that his story is his life and that this questioning young man keeps him alive. He decides to break his vow and tells the story. The pain of those who must see and understand what he has seen and understood forces him to rescue Kolvillag from oblivion.
This is a book, then, about the predicament of its author. Azriel is Wiesel, who feels responsible for the perpetuation of the memory of the Holocaust, for whom that memory has become coterminous with existence itself. His story, he believes, can somehow reach the sources of other people's pain—beyond the cathartic, the telling of the story has an almost redemptive power. He writes out of an allegiance to both the dead and the living. The author is very ambitious: he casts himself in a dramatic role which is for him of great significance and force. But it is a role which he cannot convincingly fill, which, sadly, very quickly becomes no more than a posture.
The Oath is not a very good novel. Though the account of Kolvillag is at places absorbing, it is generally trite. The prose is pedestrian, punctuated in times of stress by purple flourishes of mystical jargon. The book abounds in oracular pronouncements about life which rank with the most indulgent excesses of existentialism. Azriel is supposed to have a secret, an intuition which goes to the heart of all our pain, a hard-won wisdom which he must break his oath to reveal. But once he has done so, the wisdom is nowhere to be found. Beyond the sheer emotional shock at having been brought so close to the destruction, we cannot at all understand what it was that the young man found in Azriel's tale to transform his pain.
Wiesel's major literary technique is mood, the setting of an atmosphere of mystery, of pain, of spiritual and emotional extremes. But the setting then becomes the substance, and we are offered really nothing more than the lingering mood. Wiesel confuses style with substance, mistaking dizziness for heights, and obscurity for depths. He is so fascinated by mystery that it has itself become evidence of truth. And so he never tires of telling us about this kabbalist or that rebbe, this wise madman or that hunchbacked seer. For all his recollecting, there is little trace in Wiesel's work of life as we live it.
All this happens because Wiesel insists, in The Oath as well as in his other works, upon turning history into legend. The searing facts of the Holocaust, facts which no fiction will ever render more harrowing, become myths of the combat of good and evil, destiny and human will, man and God. Wiesel's characters are not people captured convincingly in the particularity of their precarious existences; they are rather archetypes of the varieties of Jewish pain, nominal props for a spectrum of spiritual states. But, as Lionel Trilling has observed, it is precisely in the particularity of our commitments that we suffer. The large and small tragedies of the Holocaust are subordinated by Wiesel to an aesthetics of mystification which may perhaps make them palatable for him but nonetheless robs them of their force. What remains is a spirituality become stylized, a suffering become rhetorical, and a kind of elaborate superficiality which does justice neither to the author's intentions nor to his terrible subject matter.
Wiesel is certainly right in claiming the ineffability of the experience he is trying to describe. Perhaps, finally, that is the whole point. Yet he himself continues to weave his own mythologies into his tales, while the facts—truths which thwart not only the mind but the imagination as well—explode all such pretensions, including his own. Night, Wiesel's first work, was a powerful book precisely because his memory itself was fresh, unencumbered by mythology. But mythology is rife in The Oath; it is, in fact, its very content, whereas memory is frightfully dim. At this point Wiesel's art is no match for the truth, and it may be time for him to reconsider Moshe the madman's oath. Perhaps silence is after all the most eloquent witness to all that death.