When it comes to a novel, I suppose, all that matters is what’s between the covers. But when the novel is “The Sonderberg Case” by Elie Wiesel (Alfred A. Knopf: $25, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson), the author’s life story simply cannot be ignored.
Wiesel may well be the single most-famous survivor of the Holocaust. He was sent to Auschwitz at the age of 15, an experience that is recalled in “Night,” Wiesel’s compelling and enduring contribution to the literature of the Holocaust. He is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, among other honors, and he has achieved unique stature and function as a voice of morality in international geopolitics, as when he courageously cautioned Ronald Reagan against making a state visit to a German cemetery where SS troops are buried. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” Wiesel famously said, speaking truth to power.
More than 50 books bear Wiesel’s name as author, and his latest is the newly published “The Sonderberg Case,” a slender, taut and deeply reflective account of a Jewish theater critic named Yedidyah who is assigned to cover the murder trial of an enigmatic German expatriate. “Trials are like theater,” his editor explains. Almost inevitably, however, the mystery goes much deeper than the death of one man.
The crime itself is enigmatic. Werner Sonderberg goes for a hike in the Adirondacks in the company of his uncle, but he returns alone and the uncle’s dead body is later discovered at the foot of a cliff. At the trial, the defendant declares himself to be “guilty and not guilty,” and Yedidyah spends the rest of his life struggling to understand the meaning of his plea. “Accident? Suicide? Murder?” muses Yedidyah long after the trial is over. “The fate of an individual matters little compared to the goings-on of political, financial and artistic celebrities. But Yedidyah thinks about it often, too often probably; he remains haunted by it.”
We simply cannot read these words by this author and fail to think of the other crimes that also haunt Elie Wiesel, and we suspect that there is a linkage between the death of one man in the Adirondacks and the murder of millions at Auschwitz. “Sometimes, when Yedidyah assesses his work, with its setbacks and intervals of calm, his dazzling triumphs and slow or dizzying failures, this trial stands out for him like black granite, attracting the twilight,” he writes. “Years have gone by, but Yedidyah still can’t reach a verdict.”
At the core of “The Sonderberg Case” is a conventional murder mystery, although a particularly elegant and deeply literate one. Yedidyah is a civilized man, and his memories are ornamented with knowing references to Oedipus and Camus, Brecht and the Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, the Spanish Inquisition and Kafka’s “The Trial.” The murder case itself falls somewhere between “a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean drama.” But Wiesel is ultimately less interested in the truth and consequences of the murder case than in the moral repercussions of history.
“Creation,” Yedidyah wonders aloud, “may just be one big, lengthy court proceeding.”
The Holocaust is referenced only obliquely as “the Tragedy,” and Yedidyah’s father, a child of survivors, falls silent whenever the subject comes up. But, not surprisingly, the subject is inescapable. At a family wedding, for example, Yedidyah’s grandmother wonders: “Do you think they see us?” And he realizes that she is referring to the ones who did not manage to escape and reach America. His mother whispers a benediction at the family holiday table: “Look, in spite of it all, we’ve defeated Hitler,” she says. “Our happiness is his hell.”
But history, as James Joyce wrote, is a nightmare from which we struggle to awaken, and the same is true of the characters in “The Sonderberg Case.” As we reach the end of Wiesel’s slender novel, everything we have assumed to be true is shown to have been a scrim behind which the harder and more poignant truths are suddenly discerned. “When the Tragedy is referred to, the law of probability is scoffed at,” says Yedidyah at the moment of revelation. “Many stories that we think are improbable and impossible are actually true.”
Indeed, the closing passages of “The Sonderberg Case” can be approached almost as memoir rather than mystery fiction. For Wiesel, as for the characters he has created, the biblical search for “the tree of life and knowledge” is something we are obliged to undertake, even if we rightly fear what we may find. More than that I cannot say lest I spoil the shocks and surprises that Wiesel has so carefully buried away in his latest book.