Elie Wiesel’s new work, The Sonderberg Case, is a terse philosophical novel that explores issues of identity, memory and personal responsibility in the shadow of the Holocaust, subjects to which the Nobel Prize-winning author has returned time and again in his distinguished literary career.
Yedidyah Wasserman, Wiesel’s protagonist, is a failed actor and theater critic for one of New York’s newspapers. He is the husband of an aspiring actress, the father of two sons living in Israel and the descendant of Holocaust survivors intrigued by apocryphal Biblical literature. Assigned by his editor to cover a sensational criminal trial, he finds himself increasingly immersed in troubling questions about his own identity.
The focal point of the novel’s episodic plot is the trial of Werner Sonderberg, a 24-year-old German immigrant and student of comparative literature who’s accused of shoving his uncle from a cliff while the two hiked in the Adirondack Mountains. Asked to enter his plea to the murder charge, Sonderberg responds, to his lawyer’s dismay and observers’ confusion, “Guilty and not guilty.” Yedidyah watches and writes with fascination as the drama enacted in the theater that is the courtroom unfolds, reaching a result that is undeniably just but morally ambiguous.
It takes more than 20 years for Yedidyah, in an intense and intellectually challenging dialogue with Sonderberg, to discover disturbing information about the wartime role of the latter’s uncle and thus unravel the mystery behind the accused’s enigmatic plea. In the process, in dreams and in hypnotically prompted memory, Yedidyah struggles to make sense of a family history that once seemed certain but that, he learns, contains its own mysteries of sorrow and redemption. “We don’t live in the past,” he concludes, “but the past lives in us.”
Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, even the youngest of those who survived the Holocaust, the “kingdom of oblivion,” as Yedidyah Wasserman thinks of it, are now in their eighth decade of life or beyond. In the time left to his generation, it remains for Elie Wiesel to probe, honestly and relentlessly, for answers to questions that, even for the wisest of us, likely have none.