Conversations With Elie Wiesel, by Elie Wiesel and Richard D. Heffner
Having read quite a few books by the author, including one additional book like this one that was made as a result of a long conversation, I have to say that Elie Wiesel does not come off as personable in these conversations that he does in his own writing. I’m not sure why that is the case, but it’s worth a guess at least. In his own writings, the author has some kind of story to tell, usually, whether that is the story of his own childhood, a fictional narrative that relates to the Holocaust and its aftermath, narratives about sages and wise men, or in a memoir about a near death experience resulting from heart problems. In these contexts the author is winsome and if he has a somewhat narrow range he at least handles that range well. When he is engaged in the sort of conversations that become books, though, we see the weaknesses of Elie Wiesel’s approach in his reflexive globalism and his hostility to absolute truth and in his post-millennial optimism and his automatic sympathy for supposed “victims” and a failure to understand how these people can easily become oppressors in turn as has happened in South Africa, among other places.
This book consists of eleven chapters with various interludes that contain smaller fragments of conversations. The conversations begin with a discussion of the responsibility that people have for others (1), move on to the place of the intellectual in public life (2), and talk about the issues of political correctness (3), where the author’s views are somewhat nuanced but ultimately somewhat PC. The conversation moves to the proper role of the state in the lives of citizens (4), issues of religious, politics, and tolerance (5), and nationalism and upheaval, especially in the post-Communist world (6). The conversation moves to an anatomy of hate (7), Wiesel’s opposition to capital punishment (8), and the issue of the mercy of taking lives (9). Finally, the conversation closes with a discussion of making ourselves over in whose image (10) as well as the mystic chords of memory (11) that connect people together, after which the book closes with an afterword. Altogether, the book contains about 175 pages of material whose reception by the reader will likely depend on the extent to which Wiesel’s political worldview corresponds with their own. Admittedly, there are a lot of differences between worldview between myself and Wiesel, so this book was not one that greatly pleased me as a reader.
This book really indicates the problem that results when having a book of conversations. When the author writes about either his own story, or a story that he has imagined, he has a good enough prose style and a winsome enough approach that he is able to be enjoyed without too much difficulty so long as one has a way of approaching the text. However, the author’s views on political matters are decidedly partisan, and with a bias that I find reprehensible in politics. The author is distressed that politics are so important and he would appear to rather talk about other subjects, but the way this book is framed, it appears as if the co-author is most interested in showing what Wiesel had to say about questions of policy and geopolitics, and that is precisely where Wiesel has the least to say that is worthwhile to read and pay attention to. As a person, Wiesel is winsome, as a Holocaust survivor he has a lot of dark tales to tell, but as a political commentator his views are not particularly insightful or worthwhile. By playing to the author’s weaknesses rather than his strengths, this volume is a big disappointment in a little book.