By Elie Wiesel. Translated from the French by David Hapgood

Knopf. 300 pp. $25

Unquestionably, Elie Wiesel is one of the most admirable, indeed indispensable, human beings now writing. Beginning with his autobiographical novel Night (1958), the Transylvanian-born survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald has courageously mined his shattering experiences to provide the world with testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust.

As if this were not enough, over the years Wiesel has gone on to speak out passionately against instance after instance of man's inhumanity to man -- from the killing fields of Cambodia to the massacres in Rwanda. He has been an advocate for Soviet Jews and South African apartheid victims, for Nicaragua's Miskito Indians, Argentina's desaparecidos, oppressed Kurds and Bosnians, for all who have been besieged by war, famine or religious, ethnic or political hatred. A strong supporter of Israel, he has also called attention to discrimination against Ethiopian-born Israeli youth. Unlike many who mouth the mantra "Never again," Wiesel means it, and in every case he has raised his voice on behalf of mercy and humanity. It is no wonder that in 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Judged from a purely literary standpoint, however, Wiesel's fiction has a more limited appeal. The problem is not that it often deals with heartbreaking subjects, for Wiesel can evoke devastating loss and horror with simplicity, power and sincerity. The problem results, rather, from a kind of thematic overload that sometimes is more confusing than illuminating. Reading his ambitious and moving new novel, The Time of the Uprooted, one feels overwhelmed by an excess of themes, characters, concepts and plot developments, all obviously intended to plumb deep questions about life, love, human nature, religious faith, history, politics and morality, but the effect of which is to diffuse and dissipate the novel's focus.

The central story is a poignant one. In 1939, the Jewish Gamaliel Friedman and his parents flee Czechoslovakia for the then safer-seeming nation of Hungary. When that country, too, provides no protection, Gamaliel's mother (doomed, like her husband, to destruction) consigns the 8-year-old boy to the care of a friend, a Hungarian Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka.

"The world," his mother explains, "is a cruel place. It doesn't want us; it condemns us. . . . But always you find the world in people's hearts. When their hearts are good, the world is beautiful, but when their hearts are bad, the world is poisonous." Religion, ideology, profession, race or nationality: None of these is any guide to the contents of an individual heart.

Ilonka is a Christian only nominally; as a cabaret singer, she has to consort with the enemy. But she is utterly devoted to the boy. Not only is she prepared to risk her life for him, but she is also a warm and loving mother. Following the ill-fated Hungarian uprising of 1956, Gamaliel flees to Paris, but Ilonka stays on in Budapest. In the years since then, he has been unable to find out what happened to her.

Now an aging refugee living in New York, Gamaliel is called to the bedside of an elderly, deranged, disfigured Hungarian woman. Although he cannot tell whether or not she is Ilonka, he visits her and forges a relationship with Lili Rosenkrantz, the doctor treating her.

Here and elsewhere, uprootedness -- the state of being a refugee -- is another central theme: "Let's note here that Gamaliel, the stranger in this story, isn't really a stranger. Like everyone else, he has an identity. . . . But the refugee in him is always on the alert, ready to speak the word that will upset all he's taken for granted about the way he lives. It is said that a man never recovers from torture, that a woman never recovers from rape. The same is true of those who have been uprooted: once a refugee, always a refugee. He escapes from one place of exile, only to find himself in another: Nowhere is he at home."

In many ways, Gamaliel feels most at home with his friends who are fellow refugees, four of whom have interesting political histories, the fifth of whom is a mystical rabbi. Along with his fellow refugees' back stories, the novel also deals with Gamaliel's earlier love affairs, his disastrous marriage to a Frenchwoman, his alienated twin daughters, his humiliating career as a ghostwriter, and a story he is working on titled "Book of Secrets," about a Kabbalist scholar's attempt to persuade a Roman Catholic archbishop to save Jews from the Nazis. With so much going on, it's like being lost in a hall of mirrors.

In the final scene from "Book of Secrets," the archbishop offers to save the scholar and his family in exchange for conversion. The scholar refuses. How can the archbishop console himself that he is saving a soul via conversion when, at this very moment, Jew after Jew is being murdered in a monstrous ritual of mass crucifixion? "What I require from you has nothing to do with me or my own survival. I demand that you save my entire community," he tells the archbishop. "With every Jew you kill, you put your Lord back on the cross." This Judeo-Christian confrontation and breakthrough is an important theme, worthy of a novel of its own rather than being spliced into this one. But here, as elsewhere, Wiesel tends to circle repetitively around his ideas rather than to probe them with the rigor that could lead to a higher level of understanding. The true theme of this novel, as simple as it is profound, is summed up in the words of Gamaliel's mother: "You find the world in people's hearts." The rest is a distraction. *

Merle Rubin reviews regularly for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Elie Wiesel