From Elie Wiesel, a gripping novel of guilt, innocence, and the perilousness of judging both.
A plane en route from New York to Tel Aviv is forced down by bad weather. A nearby house provides refuge for five of its passengers: Claudia, who has left her husband and found new love; Razziel, a religious teacher who was once a political prisoner; Yoav, a terminally ill Israeli commando; George, an archivist who is hiding a Holocaust secret that could bring down a certain politician; and Bruce, a would-be priest turned philanderer.
Their host--an enigmatic and disquieting man who calls himself simply the Judge--begins to interrogate them, forcing them to face the truth and meaning of their lives. Soon he announces that one of them--the least worthy--will die.
The Judges is a powerful novel that reflects the philosophical, religious, and moral questions that are at the heart of Elie Wiesel's work.
There are two strains in Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wiesel's work. One is testimonial. Beginning with his classic, Night, Wiesel has made himself one of the great witnesses of our time. The other strain derives from Wiesel's fascination with parables and fables. In the 1950s, when Wiesel became known, the allegorical mode (suitably fitted out with existential meanings, as in Sartre's No Exit) enjoyed a brief vogue. His latest novel even refers to Sartre's play as it portrays a sort of metaphysical hostage taking. A plane bound from New York to Israel is forced to land in a snowstorm in Connecticut, and five passengers are taken to the house of a local man who has the delusion that he is a judge in a capital case. As the guests respond to the judges more and more personal and insinuating questions, their characters are revealed. Claudia, a pretty theater press agent, wants to get out of the situation by complying; Bruce, a self-described playboy, opts for childish defiance. George, an archivist, and Yoav, an Israeli soldier, respond in more restrained ways. The most thoughtful figure, Razziel, is the principal of a yeshiva. His impressions provide the frame of the drama. Each character, caught in the facts of his or her past and oriented toward future projects, must confront a present threat that crystallizes their existences. Wiesel is obviously closest to Razziel, whose past experiences in a Romanian prison and interest in mysticism mirror, in lightly fictionalized form, factors in Wiesels own life. There is a certain creakiness about the plot, reminiscent less of Sartre than of the Twilight Zone; the story seems more suited to the stage than the novel form. However, the authority of Wiesel's public persona always invests his writings with interest.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 11, 2004
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Excerpt from The Judges by Elie Wiesel
Outside, the wolves, if there were any, must have been jubilant; they reigned supreme over a doomed world. Razziel pictured a pack of them in full cry, anticipating the delight of falling upon sleeping prey, and that reminded him dimly of the troubling landscape of his youth. Were these the only things that seemed familiar to him, his only points of reference? Was there no face he could have called to mind for reassurance? Yes, there was one: that of an old wise man, wise and mad, mad with love and daring, with thirst for life and knowledge, the ravaged face of Paritus. Whenever Razziel thought about his own past, Paritus always surfaced in his memory.
The storm was violent, driven by the fury, both blind and blinding, of a thousand wounded monsters; when would its howling cease? It seemed as if it were pitilessly bent on uprooting everything, sweeping everything away to a land dominated by white death, and that this would engulf the log cabin in which he sat in this little village hidden away somewhere in the mountains between New York and Boston. Was it the end of the world? The end of a tale whose origins were unknown to Razziel? Was he to die before having met once more with his great protector, his guide, the messenger of his destiny? Surely not; it was just a fantasy, an illusion that arose from the nightmares buried deep in Razziel's memory, from which he himself had been barred for time beyond measure.
A strange orator roused him from his reverie. Theatrical, with a harsh, emphatic voice, he was delivering a speech as if he were onstage or standing before a gathering of learned men.
"I salute the gods who have guided you to this modest dwelling. Welcome. Warm yourselves, and may our meeting have a significance worthy of us all," said the man, smiling.
Were the five survivors, four men and one woman, too exhausted to be astonished at the solemn, not to say pompous, tone of these remarks? They did not react. Their host seemed to be relishing his role; no doubt this was one he had played in front of other travelers who had sought shelter beneath his roof on stormy nights.
They appeared content, these tourists who had become refugees; they were relieved-in good spirits, even. Their nightmare was over. In this room, which resembled a large monastic cell with bare, immaculately white walls, they had no cause to be uneasy. Quite the reverse; they felt lucky: Had they not just escaped catastrophe? After those interminable minutes of apprehension before the plane's forced landing, the universe had rediscovered its contours, its anchor. Their fear was dissipated. The elements would surely calm down. With solid ground beneath their feet, they enjoyed a sense of security here in this light, warm room with a host who gave evidence of the kindness of the human heart. He was smiling at them, a good sign. They had been fortunate to come across him. From now on all would be well. The other passengers would surely envy them when they exchanged stories, once back on the plane. For the moment they congratulated themselves on the outcome of an adventure that could have ended so badly.
"Damn it," murmured one of the travelers, a squat, morose man; he was rummaging in his pockets, searching for lost documents. No doubt he had left them on the plane.
Razziel understood his anxiety: They all lived in a world where a human being counts for less than a piece of paper. He almost proffered him a friendly word of reassurance-Don't worry; you know, in situations like this the authorities are understanding-but decided not to. He uttered a silent prayer, thanking the Lord for having taken care of him. The third man, tall, well-dressed, with a fedora, a mustache, and a red scarf around his neck, much in the style of a movie star, smiled at the woman, who was swathed in a fur coat. The danger was barely past and he was already beginning to flirt. The woman, who was put out at having left her gloves behind, blew on her fingers. Razziel glanced at the youngest of the group, who seemed indifferent to what was happening to them. This young man had something on his mind, something that was of no concern to his fellow travelers. If he was in a hurry to continue his journey, he did not show it. His eyes were focused on their host: There was something forced and false about him. His smile was disconcerting rather than reassuring. There was a fixity about his stare, a rigidity about his movements, like an actor; he seemed to be cooking up some secret plan, although his guests were not yet aware of it.
"First let us thank you for your hospitality," said the woman, an ebullient young redhead, offering him her hand, which he appeared not to see. "Truly-"
"It is I who must thank you," replied her benefactor, assisting her, with exaggerated courtesy, to remove her elegant fur coat. "If you only knew how dismal and monotonous existence can be here, especially in winter. The local people get depressed. All they can think about is the weather. And all the world does here is grow old. Sometimes we feel forgotten, both by History and by men. By the gods too. Thanks to you, things will happen. What would life be without its little surprises? I am obliged to you for the Creator's gift to man: his capacity to surprise."
Then he introduced himself.
"I am the owner of this modest house. My name would mean nothing to you; besides, it's of little significance. What's in a name? I could give you a dozen. But instead let me tell you my profession. I am a judge. And, indeed, tonight I will be your judge."
What a showman, Razziel said to himself, still unaware that the nightmare was beginning. How subtle this fellow is. And crafty. In putting on this performance for us, he's trying to make us forget the danger we have just escaped and help to pass the time while we wait. Only later did he realize that the real source of danger was this character himself. At this moment he seemed overly amiable and welcoming, eager to win the confidence and gratitude of his guests, which they were fully disposed to accord him.
"Please be so kind as to listen to me carefully. This little house is not exactly paradise; it does not allow me to offer you bedrooms. These are already occupied by my staff. You will be meeting my chief assistant shortly. His correct name is-oh, forget it. As he's not very tall, he prefers to be called the 'Little One,' or, as he's not very handsome, you could call him the 'Hunchback' because he's-"
"Fine. We get the picture," the young woman interrupted, laughing. "If you're not careful he might sue you for assault on his dignity."
The Judge glanced at her reprovingly. "Interrupting a judge can be a serious offense."
"Or an enjoyable sin," intervened the elegant man.
"Oh, well, sins. I know a thing or two about them," said the young woman.
The Judge ignored these remarks. "This room is heated by two electric radiators, which my assistant can regulate from outside. If you are too hot or too cold, let us know. The bathroom is behind me-the narrow door there, you see? Does anyone need . . . ?"
No volunteers. In fact, Razziel would have liked to make a visit, but it was not urgent.