Refugee can’t grow roots in Wiesel’s latest novel

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel always has implored us never to forget the stories of the Holocaust. With the last generation of Holocaust survivors dwindling, those remaining wonder whether the next generations have gotten the message.

Wiesel adds to his extensive canon another novel that addresses the lives lost in the Shoah — both those who perished and those whose lives were “merely” ripped apart. Uprooted from all they knew, these survivors, refugees and orphans can be as lost as those whose lives were literally terminated.

“The Time of the Uprooted” is the story of WWII refugee and Holocaust survivor Gamaliel Friedman. His family flees from Czechoslovakia in 1939 to Hungary, where he is soon placed with Ilonka, a young Christian cabaret singer, to hide his Jewish identity. He escapes the communist-ruled Budapest in 1956, settling briefly in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, New York.

Gamaliel’s story is gripping and perhaps “typical” of a Holocaust refugee with its grief, grievances and wrenching life changes. However, the true story of Wiesel’s novel is not that of Gamaliel’s history, but of his internal journey through memory — the rest is all back story.

Gamaliel confronts the path his life has taken, his difficulties in love and his lonely life as a ghostwriter who seems unable or unwilling to pen his own stories. He struggles with what to say and how to say it. As one character says, “To be silent is forbidden; to speak is impossible.”

Wiesel’s writing style is as uprooted as the life of the main character and his refugee friends. “He escapes from one place of exile, only to find himself in another: Nowhere is he at home.”

The reader is whipped back and forth from childhood memory to current time and everywhere in between, conveying Gamaliel’s uncertainty, fear and lack of grounding. Unfortunately, this challenging style may leave readers behind, wondering what to make of all these disjointed stories.

Many of the supporting characters feel shallow, just satellites in Gamaliel’s universe of memories. His circle of refugee friends is not formally introduced until the halfway mark but provide balance to Gamaliel’s circuitous recollections. The vignettes draw sympathy, but not always enough to make this a consistently compelling read.

We do not learn of Gamaliel’s path through the war years to his present day life until the end. Many hints about his failed marriage and estrangement from his children are sprinkled throughout before the actual events are revealed. The glimpses of the novel he is writing — the one he would be willing to publish under his own name — disappoint as an expected masterpiece.

Despite the complexity of the structure, the plan is intricate and evident once the pattern emerges. Wiesel is a wizard with words. The precision and poetry of the language chosen to describe the indescribable illustrates Wiesel’s mastery of the story, even in translation from the original French manuscript.

“The Time of the Uprooted” may be a novel that is purposely demanding on the first read, then more emotionally rewarding on subsequent readings. The book’s tone accurately reflects the discomfort and despair through style as well as content, conveying the feeling of uprootedness inherent in the life of any refugee. Although unsettling, the novel succeeds on a visceral and literary level.