The Time Of The Uprooted: A Novel, by Elie Wiesel
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before: a Jewish widower whose estranged wife committed suicide and whose daughters have entirely rejected him works as a ghostwriter telling the stories of others while working on his own writings and seeking to come to terms with a terrible past that includes passing as the Christian nephew of a Hungarian cabaret dancer in World War II central Europe. Admittedly, there are definitely some people who I can feel the character resembles in certain ways, but this novel is well within the current of fairly typical Elie Wiesel novels. The plot is complex, the telling of the story even a bit convoluted, in a good way, and the character comes to terms with a difficult task through writing and thinking and feeling in a way that appears well-earned, and something that the audience should at least be cheering on. If this book is not particularly surprising if one has read any segment of the author’s body of work, the book does reveal the author’s penchant for writing well about what he knows, the experience of people whose lives were deeply scarred by the betrayals and traumas of the Holocaust experience and the rootlessness that resulted from being cast aside from one’s hometowns and home villages and forced to try to find a new home abroad.
In a way, it is greatly fitting that the author is a ghostwriter, because this book dwells the ghosts of memory that result from the past. The author tries to understand the fierce letters of his estranged daughters, who wonder if the kindness and love he showed them before leaving France for the United States after the breakup of his marriage was only pretense, without being able to understand the sense of abandonment he felt when his parents left him with a kind but not particular moral cabaret singer who pleasured men while being repulsed by their slimy interest only in her sexuality. A lot that goes on in this book is repellent, from the bestial hatred of the Jews and those kind to them shown by the Hungarians in the novel to the way that a desire to make someone happy can become twisted into an unhappiness that one cannot shake. The protagonist writes and thinks and talks and seeks to come to terms with his past as he is faced with an amnesiac from Hungary who is dying from damage received in an accident, and comes to the understanding that one needs to start again and not merely go on after the losses he has suffered.
The book also dwells thoughtfully and at considerable length on the problem of being a refugee. The author notes, somewhat ironically, the unpopularity that refugees have in other countries, and the way in which statelessness is viewed as a disease and an affliction. In the French characters’ hostility to people gaining a French nationality by virtue of marrying French citizens, one can see the struggles over identity and the place for refugees that is going on in American and European politics at present, where a sense of kindness towards some who have suffered wrongs in their homeland (like Kurds, Assyrian Christians, or persecuted minorities around the world) sits uneasily with a mistrust for those who seek to change the lands they move to and corrupt their host nations with demands for welfare and catering to their own traditions. If the author is certainly sympathetic with the plight of the uprooted exile, he is also aware of the fact that in order for the exile to find happiness in life there must be a letting go of the past and the desire to start again in a new place. One can only wish that the author found that sort of peace himself given his own wellspring of suffering as a child of the Shoah.