The Forgotten: A Novel, by Elie Wiesel
This novel hit surprisingly close to home, but perhaps it should not be a surprise. Despite the fact that the novel talks about experiences that are far removed from my own background, the emotional terrain of this novel and its look at the burdens that are passed down from generation to generation is something that I can definitely understand all too well, and the main character is a recognizably Nathanish one. It is remarkable the way in which the author writes about people who are very much like himself as well. In fact, it is probably not an exaggeration that the author was himself writing about a great deal of his own personal history, or at least that of people he knew, in crafting this novel of the repercussions of one’s actions or inactions, and the way that the past is a burden to us all in a way that brings humanity together, at least potentially. For someone who has been as devoted as the author has been in preserving historical memory, it is without a doubt immensely difficult to wrestle with the question of the loss of memory due to illness, which is one of the greatest losses that someone can suffer in their existence.
The novel itself is a fairly complicated one, skipping forward and backwards in time. It is mostly about three generations of a Jewish family. Malkiel is a journalist who has been in a serious and committed, but not married, relationship with another journalist, despite various ups and downs, and his father is a bit unhappy that he has not settled down yet. Realizing that he is losing his memory in some rare and incurable disease, the father, Elhanan, sends the son back to the area where Elhanan had been born in Hungary to deal with a particularly tragic event in his life. Through various flashbacks we find out that Elhanan had missed being able to help bury his father, also named Malkiel, who had sacrificed himself as the local ghetto was being liquidated during World War II when Hungary and Nazi Germany were facing defeat against the Soviet Union. We also find out about Elhanan’s life as a partisan and his marriage to a passionate woman who died while giving birth to Malkiel while Elhanan was a prisoner of the Jordanians after the failed defense of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948. By the end of the story we find out that Elhanan has been haunted by a rape that a fellow partisan had committed against the brutalized wife of a local anti-Semite, and that the woman is still haunted about the incident decades later.
Admittedly, this is not the sort of novel that everyone will appreciate. Its context is wrapped up in the Jewish life of Europe, Israel, and the United States, and those who are not a part of that life will find the world a bit unfamiliar. Likewise, the book is wrapped up in the problem of historical memory, in the losses suffered by European Jewry, and in the desires of families for sons to marry and have children of their own, to be fruitful and multiply and carry on the family name and so on and so forth. If Elhanan seems to be someone whose experiences and losses have made him a bit passive through much of the story, in Malkiel we have someone who struggles with the burden given to him by his father and grandfather, and the loss of his mother for which he might feel at least some degree of guilt given its circumstances. And yet so long as we live and breathe, there is hope that we can make peace with others and with our own pasts.