BOOK REVIEW In Elie Wiesel's latest novel, "Hostage," a Jewish man is kidnapped by terrorists and spends his captivity remembering his boyhood. The book reads like a valedictory, summing up the beliefs of a life fully lived.
It's been a rough couple of years for 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. He had heart surgery. And before that, Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme took the bulk of his personal savings and almost bankrupted his charitable foundation.
It is enough to make any person want to take stock. Not surprisingly, therefore, Wiesel's latest novel, "Hostage" (Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pages, $25.95), reads like a valedictory -- in the best possible way.
Like the author, the book's protagonist, Shaltiel Feigenberg is a storyteller, and, like Wiesel, most of his work is "intellectual, preoccupied with the mystical."
The two share something else: Both are hostages. Wiesel is a prisoner of his memories, the year he spent in the Nazi camps, the family he lost. Feigenberg is a physical hostage, randomly swept off the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1975 for no reason other than that he is Jewish.
The two kidnappers are members of an obscure terrorist gang, the Palestinian Revolutionary Action Group, conducting its first operation in the United States.
Ahmed, a Palestinian, believes he is a messenger in the personal service of the Prophet. His partner, Luigi, an Italian, believes in revolution.
They say they want three prisoners released or they will kill their captive. To prove how serious they are, Ahmed periodically beats Feigenberg. "Worse than the physical suffering," Wiesel writes, "is [his] powerlessness in the face of the humiliation."
Feigenberg spends the hours and days recalling his past: his early years in a small town on the Polish-Ukrainian border, its Jews swept up by the Nazis, and his own survival because a German count enjoyed being challenged in chess by a 7-year-old boy.
Feigenberg's father survived and brought his son to the United States, where he brought him up to live a life of moral and intellectual rectitude. It is a mark of Feigenberg's basic goodness that he doesn't think much about revenge. His regret is "that he never studied the Koran," so he might make a more cogent and erudite argument for his release.
He argues with his captors about God, about Israel, about Judaism. While it is potentially foolhardy to ascribe motives to authors, it isn't Feigenberg but Wiesel proclaiming, "This is what I believe."
This is Wiesel's most personal novel, and his most powerful, propelled forward less by his skill as a writer than his moral fiber as a human being, and the logic and persuasiveness of his arguments.
Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and long-time contributor to the Star Tribune books pages. He teaches business writing to corporate executives.