Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel's parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, Gamaliel survives the war. But in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting from Ilonka.
Gamaliel tries, unsuccessfully, to find a place for himself in Europe. After a failed marriage, he moves to New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually he falls in with a group of exiles, including a rabbi--a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel's feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.
Nobel Prize-winner Wiesel (The Judges, Night) considers the cost of exile for a writer and his circle of refugee friends in this meandering yet weighty new novel. Gamaliel Friedman, a Czech Jew, escaped to Hungary as a child during WWII and survived in the care of a Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. As the book opens in present-day New York, Gamaliel calls on a nameless dying woman who only speaks Hungarian, and his numerous visits to her hospital bed are interspersed with stories of his many loves and losses. Gamaliel's statelessness is in some ways at the root of all his misery: Ilonka's disappearance, his wife's suicide, daughters who despise him and his unhappy career as a ghostwriter. His only consolations are his manuscript the Secret Book, and his small, colorful group of fellow stateless Jews. Wiesel entwines their searing memories and present troubles with Gamaliel's, and the novel's structure sometimes represents the refugee experience: buffeted from one place to the next, never sure of the journey's goal. Though the story ends on an optimistic note, this remains a bleak and unsettling novel, an exploration of the power and mystery of stories, as well as their ultimate failure to change the world. (Sept. 2)
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February 05, 2007
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Excerpt from The Time of the Uprooted by Elie Wiesel
I'm four years old, or maybe five. It's a Sabbath afternoon. Mother is lying down in the next room. I'd asked her to read to me from the book she had by her side, but she has one of her frequent headaches. So I ask my father to tell me a story, but just then there's a knock at the door. "Go see who it is," says my father, reluctantly glancing up from the journal he's keeping. A stranger is at the door.
"May I come in?" he asks. A big bearded man, broad across the shoulders, with sad eyes--there's something disturbing about him. His gaze seems heavy with secrets, and glows with a pale and holy fire.
"Who's there?" my father asks, and I reply, "I don't know."
"Call me a wanderer," the stranger says, "a wandering man who's worn-out and hungry."
"Who do you want to see?" I ask, and he says to me, "You."
"Who is it, a beggar?" my father asks. "Tell him to come in." No matter what the hour, my father would never deny his home to a stranger seeking a meal or a night's shelter, and certainly not on the Sabbath.
The stranger comes in at a slow but unhesitating pace. Father stands to greet him and leads him to the kitchen. He shows the stranger where to wash his hands before reciting the usual prayer, offers him a seat, and sets before him a plate of cholent and hallah. But the stranger doesn't touch it. "You're not hungry?" my father says.
"Oh yes, I'm hungry, and I'm thirsty, but not for food."
"Then what is it you want?"
"I want words and I want faces," says the stranger. "I travel the world looking for people's stories." I'm enchanted by the stranger's voice. It is the voice of a storyteller: It envelops my soul. He continues: "I came here today to put you to the test, to measure your hospitality. And I can tell you that what I've seen pleases me." With that, he gets to his feet and strides to the door.
"Don't tell me you are the prophet Elijah," says my father.
"No, I'm no prophet." The stranger smiles down at me. "I told you, I'm just a wanderer. A crazy wanderer."
Ever since that encounter, I've loved vagabonds with their sacks full of tales of princes who became what they are for love of freedom and solitude. I delight in madmen. I love to see their crazed, melancholy faces and to hear their bewitching voices, which arouse in me forbidden images and desires. Or rather, it's not the madness itself I love, but those it possesses, those whose souls it claims, as if to show them the limits of their possibilities--and then makes them determined to go further, to push themselves beyond those limits. It's second nature with me. Some collect paintings; others love horses. Me, I'm attracted to madmen. Some fear them, and so put them away where no one can hear them cry out. I find some madmen entertaining, but others do indeed frighten me, as if they know that a man is just the restless and mysterious shadow of a dream, and that dream may be God's. I have to confess that I enjoy their company, I want to see through their eyes the world die each night, only to be reborn with dawn, to pursue their thoughts as if they were wild horses, to hear them laugh and make others laugh, to intoxicate myself without wine, and to dream with my eyes open.
Is today Monday? Maybe it's Tuesday, but no, it's Thursday. As if it matters. The wanderer can't seem to wake up, which is unlike him, and so it was with Isaac and Job when they were full of years, as Scripture tells us. In his dream, he has just seen his father. He stands solemnly for a long moment, and then father and son embrace. He awakes with a start, then falls back into heavy, oppressive slumber. No more father. Talk to him, he doesn't answer. Stretch out a hand, he turns away. With an effort, he opens his eyes. He knows he's alone, that he should get up, that he has a long and trying day ahead, but he can't seem to place the day in his exile's life: Does it belong to his future, to his past? His soul is lost in the fog and is taking him to some terrifying place of the damned. Somewhere an old woman ravaged in body and memory is watching for him, perhaps to punish him for misdeeds long forgotten, for promises carelessly tossed aside. Who is she? A beauty he dreamed of as a boy but could not hold on to? One of his daughters, stricken in her mind and lost in the depths of time? He searches his memory; their dark faces circle around him and seem about to close in and suffocate him. He knows that he is destined for a fateful encounter with a mysterious woman. A turning point? The end of a stage of his life? If so, isn't it time for some kind of heshbon hanefesh--an accounting of his soul--in which he would review the fires he's been through and the many lives he's led?
He shakes himself awake, gets up, goes to the washbasin, and examines his reflection in the mirror. He sees his yellowish gray pallor, his sagging features, his dull gaze. He doesn't recognize the man staring back at him. All he's done is to change nightmares.
My name is Gamaliel. Yes, Gamaliel, and I'll thank you not to ask me why. It's just another name, right? You're given a name, you carry it around, and if it's too much of a burden, you get rid of it. As for you, dear reader, do I ask you how come you're named William, or Maurice, or Sigmund, or Serge, or Sergei? Yes, Gamaliel isn't an everyday name, and let me tell you, it has its own story, and it's not one you hear every day, either. That's true of everybody, you'll say--and so what? If they want, they can tell me the story of their lives; I'll hear them out. Let me add that I'm also named Peter. Peter was my childhood. For you, childhood means playing with a ball, rolling a hoop, pony rides in the park, birthdays and holidays, vacations at the shore or in the mountains. My childhood was in a nightclub. It has a story, too.
I'll get around to that.
Just bear with me.
For now, let's stick to Gamaliel. Odd kind of name, I know. You don't see it very often. Sounds Sephardic. So how did I get it? You really want to know? I inherited it. Yes, some people inherit houses, or businesses, stamp collections, bank accounts. I inherited my name. My paternal grandfather left it to me. Did I know him? Of course not; he died before I was born, or else I'd have been given another name. But then how did his parents happen to choose so unusual a name, one that seems better suited to a tired old man than to a newborn baby? Did they find it in the traditions of their Sephardic ancestors, those who were expelled from Spain, or perhaps those who stayed on, the Marranos, who pretended to convert but secretly retained their Jewish identity? You can find the first Gamaliel in the Bible: Gamaliel, son of Phadassur, chief of the tribe of Manasseh; and in the Larousse Encyclopedia, where he is described as "a Jew and a great luminary." And of course in the Talmud, where he's frequently quoted. His grandfather was Hillel the Elder. He lived and taught somewhere in Palestine during the first century, well before the destruction of the Second Temple. Yes, I bear the name of a great leader, known for his wisdom and moderation, universally respected in Israel. He was president of the Sanhedrin and of a well-known academy. Nothing was decided without his consent. I would have liked to have known him. Actually, that can be done. All I have to do is look in the records of discussions in which he took part. I've been doing that every chance I've gotten since I came to America, which by now is quite a while ago. I like to study, and I love to read. I never tire of reading. I have a lot to catch up on.