This is the second book on the Holocaust I taught to the advanced fiction class this semester. I was somewhat reluctant to begin Elie Wiesel’s gruesome Night right after finishing the Boy in the Striped Pajamas that shares the same background. But the memoir turned out to be a right choice after all. I guess the book more touched my heart than theirs, as far as God is concerned.
Before I let myself being genuinely impressed by the events depicted in this book, I sensed a fundamental doubt on the ‘authenticity’ of Wiesel’s narrative and also of the entire genre itself. You relive your own memory in order to produce and publish a memoir, and on what basis could I, a reader, assess the accuracy of that memories which must be as old as several decades? There are many episodes that I felt too dramatic to be true (the part about violin-playing Juliek was a good one, and I almost mistook myself reading a novel).
In a memoir, you are telling a story of your own as if it is some kind of fable that delivers some kind of moral or life lesson. And that story should have all the structures of a good story, the same old craps like the rising actions, climax, denouement, so forth. Surely, there must be significant liberty for the authors to fabricate in a cell and trying to reproduce your memories into a impressive, moving story.
Nevertheless, Night was a great experience for me for its stark contemplation of God in one of the darkest moments in history. It was simply miraculous to see the Jews, including Elie himself, still holding onto their faith in the midst of the atrocities against them, and it was so clear to see what they truly lost during that difficult time. It wasn’t their language, country or lost king or queen they fought for–it was God, the mighty force that encompasses all positive elements of a human life. There was nothing eviler in the book than the most pious Jews losing their faith in God.
The question of whether God exists even in the times of unspeakable extremities must be one of the fundamentally unresolved riddles. Compared to the fictional narratives such as Life of Pi, Night offers much more convincing discussion on God on the background of reality, no matter how solidly depicted. One thing I ascertained from Wiesel’s account about God is that whether metaphorically or spiritually, He is inevitably indispensable from everything that keeps us living: hope, love, care, friendship, loyalty, family, and so forth. Once you let go of the last shred of faith in Him, you finally ungrasp the last string of life, and descend into the bottom of the darkest valley of despair and death.
“…Man is too insiginificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone… Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?”
…Poor Akiba Drumer… as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentices to fight and opened the door to death. (p. 76-77)
What can be more sorrowful than the Jews who realized no God presides over such a hell like where they are–the Auschuwitz concentration camp–and let go of their lives? It was truly a night in which the light of God has vanished. I believe Wiesel’s Night offers powerful rationales for both the atheists and believers on why we deny or believe in God. The answer really rests on the reader.
I would be very careful not to present Night as a religious work if I have a chance to teach it again. How can I discuss ‘God’ in a non-religious setting? I should work on it now…
Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang. 2006