BOOK (1958)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


by Elie Wiesel

'If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one.' So wrote Elie Wiesel in 2006, while introducing a new translation of his most famous work. First published in 1958, Night has become a classic of Holocaust writing to rank alongside Primo Levi's If This is a Man. As with Levi, Wiesel's narrative was based on his own experiences. He spent two years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald alongside his father.

Night begins in 1941. The narrator is Eliezer, a devout young Orthodox Jew. The opening sections relate the Nazis' gradual deportation of Eliezer's countrymen from their homes, via ghettoes, into labour and the death camps.

The final, horrific solution begins in 1944, at the very moment that Eliezer senses a reason for hope because Germany has been defeated on the Russian front. 'The trees were in bloom ... The weather was sublime,' he says.

These images of natural light and life are extinguished in a flash. 'Night fell,' Eliezer notes. Here, the phrase is meant literally. Gradually, it accrues horrifying symbolic significance. The sun fades. Shadows fall. Darkness descends. Eliezer intones: 'Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed ... Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live ... Never.'

The sole source of light in the nightmarish world of the death camps is fire. There are the literal flames that consume 'the small faces of children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky'. These bodies include Eliezer's mother and sister Tzipora - his two other sisters survived.

Then there is the metaphorical flame that destroyed his faith in God: 'What does Your grandeur mean, Master of the Universe, in the face of all this cowardice, this decay, and this misery?'

It took Wiesel a full decade after leaving the 'kingdom of the night' before he could write about his experiences, thanks in no small part to Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac. Wiesel settled in the US. He has written more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction, including Dawn and Day, which effectively made Night the first part of a trilogy.

In 2006 he returned to Auschwitz with Oprah Winfrey whose book club patronage had already increased his literary reputation.

Like his mentor Mauriac, Wiesel won the Nobel Prize, in 1986. Accepting the award, Wiesel asked:

'Do I have the right to represent the multitudes who perished? Do I have the right to accept this great honour on their behalf? I do not. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their dreams and visions. And yet, I sense their presence. I always do...'