The Sonderberg Case By Elie Wiesel, translated from French by Catherine Temerson Random House, 192 pages, $25
Elie Wiesel is a writer with the power to bring us close to existential absolutes: life and death, suffering and transcendence, guilt and innocence, faith and the loss thereof. Throughout his long and fruitful career he has worked this small but essential body of themes, and has managed, for the most part, to make them matter anew with each successive book.
Wiesel’s latest novel, “The Sonderberg Case,” takes place in familiar thematic territory. The protagonist (and sometimes narrator) of the novel, Yedidyah, is a New York actor-cum-drama critic-cum journalist who is assigned by his editor to cover a murder trial. The defendant, Werner Sonderberg, is accused of killing Hans Dunkelman, a man presumed to be his uncle. Dunkelman died under mysterious circumstances while the two men were hiking in the Adirondacks. To the dismay of judge and jury, Sonderberg insists on entering a plea of “guilty and not guilty,” a mystery that Yedidyah feels compelled to unriddle.
It is a setup that seems ripe for an exploration of the nature of guilt, particularly since Sonderberg is German and Yedidyah the descendant of Holocaust victims. When Sonderberg says that he is “guilty and not guilty,” is he referring only to the death of his uncle, or is there a larger historical guilt at work here? As it turns out, the question of collective responsibility for the Holocaust and that of the death of Dunkelman are not unrelated.
Unfortunately, Wiesel is not content to address just a single question, no matter how important. Despite the brevity of the book, he takes time to address the nature of theater and theater criticism, the relative merits of journalism compared to other forms of writing, Zionism and Middle Eastern politics, and the details of Yedidyah’s marriage and family history. It is, of course, impossible to give each of these issues its due in such a short space, let alone connect them in any meaningful way. Worse yet, Wiesel hardly seems to try.
Indeed, the problem with “The Sonderberg Case” is not just that it takes on too much, but also that it seems to be only going through the motions. The novel’s intellectual fodder is, as in most of Wiesel’s work, a combination of traditional Jewish scholarship and secular European literature, discussed against the backdrop of a cosmopolitan urban setting.In previous novels, such as last year’s “A Mad Desire to Dance,” the mixture is pleasantly stimulating. Here, however, intellectual figures are name checked at random, with little elaboration or context.
In Yedidyah’s theater training, for example, he studies “Aeschylus and Pirandello, Racine and Tennessee Williams,” four figures that could seemingly be exchanged for any other prominent playwrights in history. Similarly, he muses on Jewish sages ranging from the prophet Jeremiah to the Vilna Gaon, with little commentary other than that they were “masters of language” and that their “words were fiery and impassioned.”
This lack of specificity extends to nearly every subject in the novel. Wiesel’s prose is fluid and graceful, but rife with generalizations and clichés. Of the media, he writes that it is “absorbed by ever-changing current events” and that “the fate of an individual matters little compared to the goings-on of political, financial and artistic celebrities.” Courtroom drama is described as “the duel between the prosecutor and defense lawyers.” Worst of all, perhaps, is his treatment of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Wiesel’s view, no problem is too vexing to be subjected to a simplistic moral ideal. “Let’s not pass judgment on religion, though we’re allowed to condemn people who pervert it for political ends,” one of Yedidyah’s sons writes vapidly in a letter home, conveniently ignoring the fact that most religious ideologies are inherently political.
Though Israel occupies only a small part of the novel, the platitudes surrounding it are symptomatic of the fuzzy thinking that permeates the book. Upon making his own visit to Israel, Yedidyah waxes sentimental.
Jerusalem: as I climbed up its hills, monuments of green vegetation soaring up to a blue sky, my heart began to race and I almost forgot to breathe. This is what my distant ancestors must have felt when they made their pilgrimage to the Temple three times a year.
The passage is reminiscent of another piece written by Wiesel, published earlier this year as a full-page ad in The Washington Post, in which he declared that “for me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics.” The piece sparked an outcry by a group of Israeli intellectuals who accused Wiesel of utopian thinking that irresponsibly ignored the real problems afflicting the city in which they lived.
The flap was unfortunate, not least because it distracted people from seeing Wiesel’s real strength, as a writer of memoir and fiction rather than as a commentator on international affairs. In light of his failure at the latter, we would do well to remember his considerable success at the former. Unfortunately, “The Sonderberg Case” is not the reminder we were seeking.
Ezra Glinter is the books editor of Zeek and a contributing editor to the Forward.