A NOVEL ABOUT Auschwitz is either not a novel or it is not about Auschwitz," Elie Wiesel observed in a recent interview. He was being invited to comment on Sophie's Choice. Possibly, said Wiesel, Styron's book succeeds as a novel, and therefore "in a way he may have failed." The title of the book in which his interview appeared, Art Out of Agony (CBC Enterprises), succinctly expresses the dilemma. Art implies coherence, form, vitality and beauty; and therefore the Holocaust rejects art, even if art finds itself increasingly drawn to the Holocaust. If art and the Holocaust are incompatible, what possible excuse can be found for the novel which, not aiming to be art, uses the Holocaust in order to entertain?
Wiesel says that he respects those, like Styron, who treat the theme respectfully; and yet -- it cannot be done. "The moment it is said, it isn't." He tried, as a child entering Auschwitz, to understand, and he could not. He still cannot. If Wiesel -- who endured it, who is wise, and a marvelous writer -- finds the Holocaust beyond understanding and beyond narration, that is good enough for me. I accept his view. There is, of course, a paradox: one cannot write about that genocide, and yet one must, because it is a central event of our century. For a Jew, there are no other events. Elie Wiesel's way of coping with the impossible dilemma is (to quote again from the interview) "not to replace silence with words, but to add silence to the words, to surround words with silence." In The Fifth Son, a novel of the Holocaust, one of the main characters, Reuven Tamiroff, says in a letter to a dead son: "I am searching for a special course: one that lies between words and silence."
This is a very silent novel, a narrative almost without events. Its narrator is a young man growing up in Brooklyn, in the radical, frenetic atmosphere of the late '60s. He has a politically-conscious girlfriend, and tries acid, but essentially he lives in the almost wordless home of his parents. His mother has gone out of her mind, and is simply lost -- away somewhere; his father, Reuven, writes his secret letters to his son Ariel, pores over ancient Jewish books in the library where he works, and once every month discusses passionately with a friend the ethics of killing. Reuven cannot tell his living son about the past. But gradually it is revealed: the small-town ghetto in which Reuven was head of the Jewish councillors, responsible to a cultivated Nazi sadist, the "Angel"; the beautiful, angelic son whom that Angel tortured to death; Reuven's revenge, after the war, when they found the Angel, tried him, and executed him with a grenade.
BUT WAS HE, in fact, dead? The young Jewish American, understanding at last his father's torments, his mother's madness, carries out some investigations and finds that the Angel survived the grenade attack and is now a successful businessman. Resolving to take his own revenge, the young man travels to Germany and at last confronts the Angel in his office. In fictional, novelistic terms, the encounter is anti- climactic; the Jew can do no more than tell the Angel who he is, and thereby confront him with the past. Faced with Death itself, in the form of an uninteresting German businessman, the spirit of vengeance just goes away. Indeed, the encounter may not even have been real.
Clearly, in this scene, can be heard the silence surrounding the words. Useless to ask the Angel to explain how he could have enjoyed torturing and killing Jews, including the child Ariel. His life is spared, not from any ethical consideration, but from a sudden feeling of emptiness, the void. People move from life to death in the book, but we do not see them die. Even the death of Ariel, of such importance to the story that one would expect the novelist to steel himself to describe it, takes place off- stage, so to speak. It is a cruel death; that is all we hear of it.
The author's reticence, reminiscent of Greek tragedy, is wonderfully effective and moving. We are reading a superb novel which doesn't want to be a novel; which brilliantly uses novelistic techniques (such as the mysterious, gradually unveiled letters to Ariel) while shuffling them off with distaste; an art which does not want to be art. Even the name Reuven Tamiroff strikes an unreal, faintly absurd note, for The Fifth Son is not about fictional individuals but about the Jewish race. Ariel is, by contrast, the perfect and apocalyptpic name; so is Angel. When the Angel orders the Jews he is about to kill to bow down and worship him, as if he were God, we are harrowed to the core by the thought that he is God. For He allowed it to happen, and Wiesel says he does not understand His silence either.
The book's triumph is that it implicitly recognizes the impossiblity of dealing with the Holocaust in art, and thereby begins to find a language with which to confront the task. No word is thrown away, and the construction is masterly. It is a pity that the jacket-note betrays so much of the plot. But the author might well say that this is a trivial matter, belonging to the realm of fiction not truth.
The term 'novel,' indeed, becomes increasingly inadequate as a description of a certain kind of literature, written out of a conviction that the reality of our epoch overwhelms fiction; a form of writing which still needs the conventions of plot and characterization, but as symbols of history. The Fifth Son is of that kind, along with the works of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. The word "novel" on the jacket, and a summary of the plot in the jacket copy falsify the nature of such works. Poem would be, I think, a more truthful description. I suggest that if we substituted poem for novel in the opening quotation of this review, Elie Wiesel's statement would no longer be valid. Poems can be written about the Holocaust -- and The Fifth Son grandly proves it. They can, and must, be written by Jews and Gentiles alike; for we are all, in our time, children of the Holocaust. I am uneasy about the unremitting and exclusive Jewishness of Wiesel's books. I hesitate to say that, in the face of his personal experience of the agony; but no artist born into the world of universal death can prevent its shadow falling on the blank page.