If you’ve read one Holocaust narrative, have you read them all? Certainly, there are elements which all accounts of the Holocaust have in common: transport in cattle cars, families separated, minimal rations and grueling work, prisoners responsible for other prisoners, smoke curling from chimneys and the stench of bodies being gassed and burned. Night by Elie Wiesel is no exception.
But Night is also riveting and persuasive, a swift and impactful 100 pages. Wiesel’s narrative voice is direct and honest. In moments of retrospective self-assessment, Wiesel has a knack for the single, cutting sentence that at once reveals the ironies or tragedies or inevitabilities of the situation. And, in these moments, Wiesel asks and answers the big questions of existence. When everything in your world is intended to tell you that you are worthless, can you still feel or be human? Can you be religious? Can you be a son?
There are those who question Night’s reliability as a memoir. They cite reoccurring minor characters, Wiesel’s use of dialogue, and, in particular, the linear, non-repetitive nature of his narrative. To skeptics, this evidence construes the work as literary and argumentative, rather than untarnished and unedited, as a primary account ought be. This pushes the conversation into discussing what Night ought to be, as opposed to what it is, and aims to discredit Wiesel for not telling the whole truth.
The field of trauma studies wields a counter argument. By the very nature of the speaker’s experience, it posits, narrative accounts of trauma are often factually incorrect. But this historical inaccuracy does invalidate their truth, emotionally and spiritually. Towards the end of Night Wiesel is packed into a warehouse with so many other prisoners that living men are piled on top of living men and Wiesel ends up above a violinist he had met much earlier at Auschwitz. Though Wiesel and his violinist friend have barely any room to move, let alone breathe, that night Wiesel writes he heard a single, mournful violin, playing the forbidden music of Beethoven. In the morning, the violinist was dead beneath him and his violin smashed in half. Did this event actually happen? Perhaps it did. Perhaps it did not. More important than its objective truth is what it reveals about Wiesel’s experience in this moment: his wanting to take comfort in something beautiful only to have reality break that illusion in an utterly horrifying way. Night’s narrative is masterfully crafted to evoke the experience of body and soul both.
We may live in a world in which the facts can be “alternative,” in which the President of the United States denies that the falsehoods he speaks are false, in which rhetoric and action threaten the lives and rights of minority groups. The comparisons to Nazi fascism have already been made by those more knowledgeable and well-equipped to do so. Night may not be 100% factual. But the truths contained Wiesel’s slim volume are perhaps more significant, more potent than ever.
Up Next: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (since Night was last week’s book, keep an eye out for this post soon!)
Why? I do love a good murder mystery and Christie is the master