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Friday, December 26, 2014

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Wiesel’s latest novel explores Mideast conflict, terrorism

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Shaltiel Feigenberg is a middle-aged storyteller in Brooklyn on his way to visit a friend when he is kidnapped by two men seeking the release of three Palestinian prisoners.

His four-day confinement is the setting of Elie Wiesel’s latest novel Hostage (Knopf). Although, this being a Wiesel novel, much of the action, as one would expect, takes place inside the protaganist’s head.

It is 1975, the middle of a volatile decade. Gerald Ford is in office, the Munich massacre at the Olympics and the Yom Kippur War are not far behind, and the rise of the PLO is consuming much of Israeli intelligence’s resources.

But Shaltiel doesn’t understand why he has been taken. Surely it’s a case of mistaken identity. In his own words, the virtually unknown writer – soon to be catapulted onto the world stage – is a nobody.

As a boy, Shaltiel was a chess prodigy. Born in Galicia, Hungary, he was the son of Haskel, a pedlar of old books. Growing up, just before the war, he loved and admired his father, relishing the Sabbath, virtually the only time he could spend time with his travelling father.

“In prison you cling to memory,” Wiesel writes.

As he sits in a dark basement blindfolded, Shaltiel is physically and verbally abused by his kidnappers. Unaware of what time it is, whether it’s even day or night, he allows his mind to wander back to his past.

It was chess that saved Shaltiel’s life.

When the Hungarians started rounding up Jews, late during World War II, Feigenberg was seven. An aristocratic German takes to the boy after discovering his chess-playing ability. As the Hungarian Jews were forced into ghettos, the count spirits the boy to a hideout where they continue their regular chess games.

“As long as I’m here, you and your family are safe,” the count tells him.

But he lied. The rest of his family wasn’t so lucky. All of them died except for his father, who miraculously survived the death march from Auschwitz.

The novel goes back and forth between the present and the past. The introduction of Israeli special agents tracking his disappearance early in the novel hints at a potential thriller that never really materializes.

Most of the action takes place as verbal debates either between him and the kidnappers or in his own mind with his memories.

Shaltiel is convinced from the onset that he will be killed in the end. He believes that like Dostoyevsky he’ll witness the preparations for his own execution.

He comforts himself by the words of Maimonides who said that no commandment surpasses the obligation to liberate hostages.

But then he remembers the story of the Maharam of Rottenburg who, when arrested in 1286, instructed the Jewish community not to pay his ransom.

If a sage like Maharam, author of essential volumes on the history of religion, can be left to his fate, what chance did he – a nobody – have?

The 200-page novel is not without digressions. The story of Shaltiel’s brother who fled to Russia before the war and became a rising star in the Communist Party does little to add to the main story line, although it does bring up the theme of redemption, one of many themes in Hostage.

The best part of the book is the intellectual discussions Shaltiel has with Luigi (an Italian, one of his kidnappers, the other being Ahmed, an Arab, who is more prone to verbal abuse than intellectual debates).

His kidnappers belong to the Palestinian Revolutionary Group – and this kidnapping is part of a new strategy to destabilize Israel by striking at American Jews.

When given a chance, Shaltiel gives Luigi a lesson in historical truths on the history of Israel and the Arab rejection of the partition.

The two end up having a verbal chess game, and one gets the feeling that the premise is merely a way for Wiesel to  discuss Palestine, Israel, the occupation, revolution and terrorism.

Weighty stuff inside what otherwise is a straightforward book about hostage taking.

And, of course, a Wiesel book wouldn’t be complete without touching upon the themes of the Holocaust, silence and the nature of evil.

*   *   *

Recent arrivals:

• The Book of Mischief ((Farrar, Straus and Giroux) triumphantly showcases 25 years of outstanding work by one of the true masters of the short story. Steve Stern’s collection takes us from the old Jewish quarter of the Pinch in Memphis, Tenn., to an immigrant community in New York, the market towns of eastern Europe and a Catskills resort.

• With the U.S. election just around the corner, Ruthie Blum’s To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama and the “Arab Spring” (RVP Press) is a timely treatise on the Democratic presidents’ record in the Middle East.

The title tells all. Don’t expect an objective account from the right-wing columnist and blogger.

• Hello Gorgeous by William J. Mann (Thomas Allen & Sons) is a biography of Barbra Streisand, chronicling her climb to fame during her New York years.

The  biographer of Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor recreates a vibrant piece of New York theatrical history that made Streisand’s breakout possible.

A must for fans.

• First published in 1984, Trudi Kanter’s Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler (Scribner) tells the remarkable true story of Kanter’s jorney through war-torn Europe as an Austrian Jew. After disappearing into the inferno of second-hand bookstores, Some Girls was recently rediscovered by an editor who fell in love with it and was determined to bring this remarkable memoir back to life.

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