Fiction about the Holocaust provokes problematic questions for author and reader alike: What is the appropriate balance between imagination and fact? How can a subject so enormous and profound be captured in a single work of art? Who has the right to touch a realm that is ineffable to some who actually experienced it? Is it irresponsible--or even immoral--to derive enjoyment and aesthetic fulfillment from the contemplation of genocide?
At the same time, the Holocaust represents a seemingly limitless challenge for anyone seeking to understand such ultimate issues as the relationship between human beings and God, the nature of good and evil, the purpose of life and the significance of death. "Twilight," by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and "The Magic We Do Here," by Lawrence Rudner, are two novels that, albeit in different ways, succeed in grappling with these central themes.
The premise of Wiesel's latest novel, originally published in French, is simple enough: The survivor, Raphael Lipkin, now a university professor of mysticism living in New York, goes to a rural psychiatric hospital, ostensibly to study the relationship between prophecy and madness. In fact, he has undertaken the venture in search of a mysterious stranger who has been slandering his most beloved friend, a man who had disappeared from Raphael's life years earlier.
There is, however, something odd about the Mountain Clinic: Most of the patients in this sanatorium are convinced that they are biblical figures, and their hallucinations constitute new versions of the original text. Thus, Adam begs God to destroy His blueprint fo1914726517Cain, who fantasizes that he has killed his brother, insists that his brother is still alive: "That way I can kill him over and over again," he announces. Clearly, the author is rethinking biblical truth in light of recent history.
Not all the characters with whom Raphael interacts express biblical delusions, however, and these figures provide the link between the ancient past and modern history. Zelig, for instance, spends all his time staring at the sky above, refusing to speak. Eventually--by joining him in his solitary obsession--Raphael gains this silent man's trust, and he learns Zelig's holy purpose: to find the vanished bodies of Holocaust victims. "After all," he says, "they couldn't have been erased like a typographical error. Or could they?"
While Raphael is absorbing the teachings of his purported research subjects, he is simultaneously attempting to come to terms with his memories--of his family in the Galician town of Rovidok, of the ways in which he lost his parents and siblings, of his friendship with and subsequent separation from Pedro, the loving substitute father who brought him out of his war-ravaged homeland and helped him to start his life anew. He muses as well over the break-up of his marriage, which is still painful to him.
These reflective moments are the most tender segments of "Twilight," for they bring to life the small moments that, by their very simplicity, characterize the beauty, heroism, and terrible sadness of the human condition. They also get at what appear to be Wiesel's principal concerns in this novel: how, finally, to come to grips with the meaning of the Holocaust in his own life and how to reconcile the heroism of the victims, the viciousness of their persecutors, and some vision of God and Jewish history. Is the Bible obsolete? Is it madness to have faith in a divine spirit when confronted by cruelty that is, unfortunately, no longer incredible?
These are not new questions, and Wiesel's answer comes about more by metaphor than by the usual techniques of conventional story-telling. One clue appears in Raphael's final conversation at the sanatorium, as he is about to leave without having discovered who has been defaming his beloved Pedro, or why. In the garden of the Mountain Clinic, Raphael comes across no less than God Himself. After pouring out his anger and frustration, he comes to realize that imagination can create its own reality. Perhaps the madmen who believe that they are Adam, Cain, or even God are as sane as those who believe in the existence of their biblical originals. It may be that the world only exists insofar as we create it, Wiesel seems to be saying. But this is not cause for despair, for we have the capacity to imagine goodness, justice, even divine wisdom, and in doing so, we make it come to pass, just as Raphael is ultimately able to overcome his tendency to believe the stranger's accusations of Pedro.