Before I jetted off on my London/Japan adventure I signed up for the Blog a Penguin Classic initiative. It’s a simple marketing ploy: give out random free books to bloggers on the condition that they review the novels on their respective journals.
I was assigned Night, by Elie Wiesel. The slender volume is a memoir of Wiesel’s incarceration in various concentration camps during World War II. In the past few decades the Holocaust has been the subject of innumerable movies, documentaries, and novels, yet when the French edition of Night first appeared in 1958 there was little being said on the subject. Wiesel’s lean description of the annihilation that occurred in camps like Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald eventually went on to become a best-selling novel and helped open up the subject to examination.
Despite being inundated with stories about the horrors of the concentration camps all my adult life Wiesel’s story penetrated my defenses, partly because of the simplicity of the story and its taut prose style. It follows the struggle for survival by Wiesel and his father as they are stripped of their loved ones, and the trapping of civilization. What’s most dreadful to witness is the slow erosion of the human spirit, where the physical desperation to survive overrides all other considerations. Wiesel says at one point: “The bread, the soup–those were my entire life. I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach.”
There are moments of courage and compassion in the book, because it is the fragile and ephemeral human bonds that keep Wiesel going despite his deprivations. At times he resents his own father because it weakens Wiesel’s chances for survival, and yet it is this tie that keeps him going when he wishes to give up. Underneath the tacked-on social conventions the human animal is tenacious: it will do anything to continue, even under conditions that seem impossible. Yet sometimes the cost is very high: one’s humanity. I suspect it is this price that many survivors resent the most.
For those who wish a glimpse of the reality of the Nazi’s final solution, Wiesel’s novel, Night, offers a narrow aperture onto its dark centre which is devastating in its raw truth.