Sunday, March 2, 2008

Day — Elie Wiesel

Sometimes, when reading a book or watching a movie or experiencing any type of story art form, I find myself struggling between remaining objective and responding naturally to my personal feelings. If I say something is well done, that may naturally imply that I liked it; if I say that I didn’t like something, it may imply that I think it was badly done, or just plain awful. But reality is far more complicated.

Elie Wiesel’s Day (once entitled The Accident), the third and final book in his Night trilogy of memoirs, is causing some clenching in my brain. After reading Night some two years ago—which was by far the most resonating and heart-breaking of the three books—my entire mindset concerning the suffering and guilt associated with Holocaust survivors has shifted: witnessing that type of human destruction and atrocity on such an astonishing scale can rip the humanity right from a person’s core. Death becomes life.

Which leads us to The Question: “Is it ever possible for Holocaust survivors to create new lives for themselves without remembering their old ones?” In Day, Wiesel gives a brief glimpse of his life in New York City—many years after the war—and the struggles he faces connecting in love, feeling undeserving of life’s gifts and pleasures, being incapable of honesty to others, as well as himself… The list goes on and on. You cannot read two sentences without being reminded of the tragedy day-to-day life brings. Wiesel will remind you, constantly and unwaveringly, lest you forget.

The basic premise is this: Wiesel is struck by a cab and critically wounded. He welcomes death, but is refused it. Life is simply not worth living, but he can’t seem to stop doing it. As he remembers the events leading up to this moment and the time that follows—centered mainly on his “relationship” with Kathleen, a woman he in no way deserves—he philosophizes on the things in his past that make it impossible for him to move on with Life.

Simply put, I did not like this book. I did not enjoy it. I did not empathize. I did not have patience with it. But there was something that affected me. Good, bad, I don't know—essentially, it’s irrelevant, because I responded, and sometimes: That’s all that matters. It may not be enough, but it matters, nonetheless.

Although the book is well-written, his self-pity and self-loathing was too much for me to stand. I know this is unfair: I’ve read Night, I should know better. But I still couldn’t stop myself from despising him.

Then it hit me: This is his intention: To detach us from him, to push us away, to force us to look at him through eyes of judgment and hatred. It is how he looks at himself. It is how he believes others should look at him. And he does it unapologetically, which cannot have been easy.

The book is short, which is a relief; 109 pages of self-imposed suffering isn't so bad. The ending will leave you hanging, but at least it is wrought with symbolism. The best character in the book, arriving too late for my taste, is the voice of reason concerning Wiesel’s suffering. I would like to think that this person is none other than us—his irritated readers—having a chance to say what we’ve all been thinking for the last 106 pages. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically: Get over it.

I’m probably going to Hell, but my forced detachment will not let me escape the thought. I’m going to assume he got the message. I’ll also admit now that, in all likelihood, I’m probably not objective enough. Wiesel deserves far more credit than I’m giving him.

Not an enjoyable read, despite some enlightening moments, so it is not coming recommended. Do yourself a favor and read Night instead.


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