Elie Wiesel’s latest novel, “The Sonderberg Case,” is a smartly written book that goes in more than one direction.
On one hand it could be described as homage to those Germans who are genuinely ashamed of their recent history and wish to come to terms with it.
On another, it is about the children of Holocaust victims and their same quest to reconcile with their past.
Neither is an easy task.
The story’s main character, Yedidyah, is a theater critic for a New York City newspaper. He lives for the theater, even though one of his college professors once urged him to make a living writing about the stage instead of performing on it.
So he’s successfully developed a career writing about Broadway and off-Broadway plays — some of which his wife performs in — until his editor hatches a bizarre idea:
A high-profile murder trial involving a young German student, Werner Sonderberg, is about to begin. Rather than the paper’s usual court reporter covering the trial, why not let Yedidyah, with his eye for character traits, plot and dialogue, handle it.
Yedidyah is hesitant at first, even reluctant, to take on the assignment, but the trial becomes one of the pivotal moments of his life. Likewise for Sonderberg, who is accused of murdering his uncle while on a vacation in the Adirondacks.
For much of the book, one wonders if Wiesel is less interested in the plot of the story than the inner conflicts churning within his two leading characters. He doesn’t develop the plot in a linear fashion. In fact, at 178 pages, the book is a deceptively hard read. Wiesel constantly switches from past to present tense and first to third person as he tells Yedidyah’s and Werner’s stories.
And the crux of those stories? Both men feel abandoned — Sonderberg by his heritage, Yedidyah by his family. But abandonment takes many forms, and what seems like a betrayal of trust can sometimes turn out to be an act of love.
The Holocaust is never far from the surface in any Wiesel novel, and in some of his classic works, of course, it is the surface. In “The Sonderberg Case,” the Holocaust defines both men in direct and indirect ways, but they are both changed nonetheless.
For those who must have a plot with an out-of-left field climax, “The Sonderberg Case” doesn’t disappoint (I certainly didn’t see it coming), but the climax is truly secondary to the characters themselves. Wiesel wants his readers to put the plot on a shelf until it’s time to consider it. Meanwhile, he pushes them to relate the lives he’s put down on paper. Far from the fiction, they’re representative of the lives of many people whose roots are in Germany and Eastern Europe.
Through these fictional characters, new generations of readers far removed from the Holocaust come to relate to the people who are forever changed by it. Perhaps that was Wiesel’s ultimate aim with “The Sonderberg Case.” If so, he’s succeeded.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)