Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Great Novellas: Night

I cannot think of a better way to follow One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in my novella series than with Night by Elie Wiesel.  There are a number of striking similarities, as both novellas detail life in a prisoner camp, which the authors each experienced first-hand.  Moreover, both authors also received the Nobel Prize.  However, the differences are significant, as Auschwitz in Night was vastly different than the Siberian labor camps, and it would be a real shame to assume otherwise.

Believe it or not, this is the first time I'm talking about more than one book by the same author.  Up until now, I have carefully tried to offer as much diversity as possible in my blog by introducing a different author in every post.  (Granted, I cheated a little bit by writing about Crime and Punishment and Invisible Man twice each).  The last time I talked about Wiesel, I told you about his play, The Trial of God.  I had a feeling that most people would be more familiar with Night than with this play, so I wanted to offer information about it to anyone who might be interested.  I still recommend the play, as I think it touches on a deep and meaningful dimension of what the Jews may have experienced in their suffering.  It addresses difficult questions and has a really surprising twist at the end.  However, I did not write about the play first because I thought it was "better" than his well-known novella.  Night is absolutely remarkably, riveting, and well-deserving of its acclaim.

It's so hard for me to talk about Night as I usually do in reviews.  The devastating content and the knowledge of the truth behind it makes it difficult for me to break it down into an analytical interpretation.  I am unable to separate my emotions from the text, which is possibly one of the reason it is such a remarkable piece of literature.  Wiesel even had a lot of trouble writing it, unsure if it was a good idea and waiting years before setting pen to paper. I truly believe you can feel his reluctance to write about it because it is so raw and personally emotional.  But when I do look at it more seriously, I am struck by the rhetorical strategy and language of the text.  English is not the original language, but the repetition and poetic nature of the words beautifully conveys the torment within and around the protagonist.  I can only illustrate this by including the most famous passage:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."

Hearing the "Never shall I forget" phrase over and over beats into the readers' minds like a steady drum of irrevocable memory.  He writes other passages similarly, creating this kind of rhythm and flow throughout the novella that sweeps you into the story.  The scene most burned in my memory, even all these years later, is the hanging of a boy in the camp.  I shall never forget that either, as I can still vividly picture the scene of the angelic face and writhing body, even though the image was created solely in my mind.

But perhaps the most powerful aspect of this novella is not the language as much as the sheer, raw honesty of the protagonist.  He admits to his darkest thoughts and deepest moments of weakness.  When his father dies, he cannot escape conveying a deeply suppressed sense of relief for not having to look after another person anymore.  There are frequently moments like this, which shows us just how truly real and human the character is.  This is why there is so much debate about whether this is a memoir or fiction.  The protagonist is not a hero without fault or weakness.  Instead, he is so profoundly real and honest that there is no feel of fiction at all.  I think it's only right for readers to get even the slightest taste of the great mix of emotions a person must have felt in that situation.  It is extremely difficult for us to imagine, even with such a great novella, but it is necessary to know that it had a number of dimensions and lasting effects for anyone who lived through it.

One last thing I wanted to note is that Night is actually part of a trilogy of novellas, following by Dawn and Day.  I didn't learn this until several years had passed since I originally read Night.  Although both of the following novellas focus on life after the Holocaust and not in the midst of it, I actually found them even more depressing than the original.  The characters are absolutely trapped by the horrors they have experienced and are unable to ever really reach a sense of peace.  It's quite painful to read, but it also probably quite realistic.  I have a feeling that Wiesel was voicing the somewhat ignored reality that the horrors of the Holocaust didn't truly end in the 1940s.

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