Night by Elie Wiesel

December 28, 2010

This is a book of humbling power. Reading it changes a person. Like Cynthia Ozick’s short story The Shawl, Night feels like a portal into the abyss. Among the cruelest things the Nazis managed was to show how any of us can be broken, how unimaginable cruelty can force a mother to scream into a shawl while her baby is thrown into an electric fence or a son to wish, if only for a moment, that his father would die so he, the son, can focus only on his own survival.

As in Ozick’s short story, the writing in Night is spare. The focus is not on evoking place, though you will shiver with cold. Elie Wiesel does not try to unmask the tormenters, rather he bears witness to the moral failings of humans placed in inconceivable conditions. Most of us who have been spared such cruelty comfort ourselves with the notion that, if ever tested, we would pass. But no one passes.

The basic story is that of fifteen year-old Elie Wiesel. He and his family live in a small town, Sighet, in Transylvania, Hungary. The story picks up in 1944. Nazi Germany is being pushed back on all fronts and, so, the Jewish community in Sighet believes they have been spared the worst. They are wrong. Elie is transformed from a studiously religious boy who wants to study the Kabbalah into a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the greatest concentration of evil Europe has ever seen.

Many books are called essential. Few truly are. This one is.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children who bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

The edition of the book on our shelves reproduces Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. I do recommend reading the speech after (or before) the book. The book itself is not about redemption or even survival. There is only horror. Elie Wiesel’s speech is a welcome counterbalance to the despair inherent in reading Night and it is an impetus to a more involved, more caring, more decent life.

[O]ne person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

The take away for me is not how I would have lived as a Jew or a German or a Frenchman or a Pole or any other race, religion, or nationality during the Holocaust. The question is: how do I live this moment and the next.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

August 6, 2009

I read this as part of my effort to catch up on major authors I have overlooked or have never gotten around to reading (e.g. Bellow and Cheever with Maxwell coming soon). As with many of these forays into the “greats”, this one was quite rewarding. Things Fall Apart is an enjoyable, concise, and thought-provoking read.

ThingsFallOkonkwo, the central character, has a lazy father who is most famous for owing debts. The shame of this drives Okonkwo to achieve. His ultimate goal is to take the highest title in the tribe, something only the wealthy and respected can achieve. His goal is realistic given his impressive physique and incredible drive. The opening paragraph relates Okonkwo’s fame and stature in the village (Umuofia) which began with victory in an important wrestling match. Additional details on Okonkwo’s rise are dribbled out throughout the early parts of the novel:

He was a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father he could stand the look of blood. In Umuofia’s latest war he was the first to bring home a human head. That was his fifth head, and he was not an old man yet. On great occasions such as the funeral of a village celebrity he drank his palm-wine from his first human head.

Okonkwo’s exploits are motivated less by bravery than by fear of failure. He tries to be everything his father was not:

Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness. It was deeper and more intimate than the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw. Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself. It was the fear of himself, lest he should be found to resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness…And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion — to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.

Being so driven, Okonkwo is able to survive some early tragedies, including a crop failure “that…had been enough to break the heart of a lion”. He puts more importance on his stature within the tribe than on personal or family connections. For Okonkwo, honor and reputation displace normal human compassion. His defining feature is a fierce ambition so consuming it very nearly must lead to tragedy. Okonkwo is a classical hero.

The novel explores several themes. On one level, the novel is a close examination of one tragic hero. On another level, Okonkwo represents tribal Africa and its collision with European colonialism. The first half to two-thirds of the novel relates Okonkwo’s rise, fall, and redemption within his village of Umuofia. In the second half, modernity looms. Because Okonkwo’s personal identity is so closely linked to his status in the tribe, it is easy to interpret Okonkwo’s personal story as an allegory for the clash of cultures as it played out in Africa.

This book does many things well. Okonkwo is an excellent character about whom the reader cares despite his unlikeability. Achebe’s telling of Okonkwo’s life story is full of insights into the human experience and the individual’s place in society and the world. As importantly, this book provides a window into African tribal life before contact with colonists. Achebe does a masterful job of straddling the cultural divide. As an example, he manages to write about tribal beliefs (e.g. their gods, fear of evil spirits, etc.) with neither condescension nor naive credulity. The reader is drawn, as far as a reader can be, into the mindset of those holding mystical beliefs, without delving into the truth or falsity of them. And, too, the story has a number of compelling plot twists. Achebe is a very good storyteller.

Achebe manages to combine these elements into a novel which, though very personal, addresses broad issues of culture. He skillfully provides the juxtaposition of sacrificial tribal practices performed for the sake of tribal cohesion and similarly sacrificial colonial practices engaged in for the preservation and advancement of civilization. Achebe writes simultaneously with compassion for his characters and with fidelity to the reality of their flaws. This is a bravely honest book. And that is its greatest accomplishment.

Things Fall Apart is a brilliant and accessible work. I highly recommend it.