Must one suffer and then feel death's ice-cold breath on the nape of one's neck in order to understand why one has been going around since earliest childhood with an ill-defined despondency close to melancholy?
I felt it long before the trial.
I felt it on the day Dr. Feldman explained to me, in a gentle, slow voice, as though he were addressing a child, that the body can become our implacable enemy.
One day, I thought, I'll turn it into a novel.
Concerning the trial, I had long been convinced that I'd never know the truth of what really happened that day between the two men, blood relations, in the high mountains of the Adirondacks.
Accident? Suicide? Murder? Can one willingly take to the grave an enigma that refuses to disclose its secret?
What evil spirit had driven Werner Sonderberg to take a break from his classes at New York University and leave town for a trip so far from the Village with the aged, disillusioned relative said to be his uncle? Yedidyah wondered. What could they have said to each other for their quarrel to reach a pitch of deadly violence? And who was this uncle whose tragic death, far from anyone, loomed over the Manhattan courtroom filled with journalists, lawyers, and curious onlookers for days and days?
The media, absorbed by ever-changing current events, or from boredom, no longer mention the trial. The fate of an individual matters little compared to the goings-on of political, financial, and artistic celebrities. But Yedidyah thinks about it often, too often probably; in fact, he remains haunted by it. Remembered images from the trial never leave him; and the proceedings echo in his mind. The lit-up room; the jury members, whose faces were alternately impassive and horrified; the judge, who at times looked like he was dozing but never missed a word of what was being said; the prosecutor, who thought he was the avenging angel. And the defendant, oscillating between defiance and remorse, avoiding the mournful gaze of his beautiful fiancée. Sometimes, when Yedidyah assesses his work, with its setbacks and intervals of calm, his dazzling triumphs and slow or dizzying failures, this trial stands out for him like black granite attracting the twilight. Years have gone by, but Yedidyah still can't reach a verdict.
Where does a man's guilt begin and where does it end? What is definitive, irrevocable?
One thought has obsessed him constantly since then. Thanks to Dr. Feldman's diagnosis, he became conscious of his mortality: Could he possibly go, and duly leave his children, their mother, Alika, and the entire convulsive and condemned world, without certainty
Until my final hour on this earth, I'll remember this event that bore me, carrying me from one discovery to another, from memory to memory, from emotion to emotion, and I'll never know the real reason behind it.
Why this meeting, this confrontation with a destiny that touched mine on the surface, like a coincidence?
I could have studied other subjects, been interested in music rather than theater; I could have had other teachers, been captivated by another woman and not fallen in love with Alika; I could have been less close to my grandfather and my uncle Méir; made other friends, cherished other ambitions-in short: I could have been born somewhere else, perhaps in the same country, the same city as Werner Sonderberg, and explored other memories. I could have lived my entire life without knowing the truth about my own origins.
I could simply have not existed, or ceased to exist. Or not been me.
I was in my office getting ready to write a review of a play that had just opened the Off Broadway season. It was Oedipus
, an ultramodern, contemporary, hopeless (too chatty) interpretation of it.
On rereading the notes I'd taken during the performance, I wondered about the play's endurance. How could it be explained? After all, of the three hundred plays written by the three giants of ancient Greece-Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides-all but around thirty have vanished. How could the selection and censorship of time be explained?
Do the gods, known and feared for their whims, have a say in this matter? Weren't they themselves subjected to the same test? Some of the plays have become popular again while others seem consigned to the so-called dustbin of history: Is there any justice in this? And what about the collective memory of artistic creation? For every Prometheus and Sisyphus haunting scholars, how many of their former equals are barely stirring and covered in dust?
And then what could possibly have induced the producer to stage a doubtless costly show that should have remained in his head or in the drawer?
I mentioned my "office" a few paragraphs ago. A tiny, unused corner in the newsroom of a New York daily. A modest worktable-a desk-and two chairs rented by two European magazines for which I was culture correspondent in the United States. This was well before the invasion of computers. The place had all the characteristics that spring to mind when you think of a hellish environment, except that Dante's hell, with its nine circles, is surely more orderly. Unbearable racket, the incessant ringing of twenty telephones, impatient calls from the editors, the shouts of the photographers and messengers, the hot topic in the news: the arrogance of a politician, his rival's defeat, the inside story on an actress's love life, the confessions of an ideologically motivated killer, a scandal in fashionable circles or in the slums. One article is too long, the other not long enough. Headlines and subheadings compete for top billing. Two dates, two facts that can't be reconciled. A beginner is reprimanded; he breaks down in tears. An old-timer tries to console him. This, too, will pass; everything passes. In short, it's not easy to concentrate. Not to mention my immediate preoccupation: my birthday.
The fact is, I have a strong aversion to birthdays. Not other people's birthdays, but my own. Especially surprise birthday parties. I dislike planned surprises. The obligation to put on an act. To lie. To lapse into abject hypocrisy. To smile at everyone and thank the good Lord for having been born. And men for having been created in His image, though He is supposed to have everything except an image. That said, let's get back to our dear Oedipus, his complexes made famous by Freud and his conflicts with the dreadful Creon. Are they contemporary heroes? This would explain the failure of the play. Does it tell us that the world changes but not human nature? Fine, we know this, and we get used to it. The Greeks' taste for authority and power, the passion for freedom and wisdom among their philosophers, the choice between obedience and faithfulness. In our day as well? An idea that deserves further thought. And a conception of spectacle.
It was at that moment that my strange life was turned upside down, as they say.
A woman comes up to my desk. She waits for me to notice her and ask if she is looking for someone; if she is, I'm sure it can't be me.
In her forties. Attractive. Dark hair; dark eyes; serene and self- confident.
"I was told that you're the person I'm looking for," she says.
"But I'm not on the editorial staff anymore . . . I mean, not really."
"I'm just a subtenant of sorts."
"I know that, too."
"So then . . ."
"You used to be a reporter."
"Yes. How do you know?"
She smiles. "You're the one who covered the trial of . . ."
"Of Werner Sonderberg. You remember that? Congratulations."
"I'd like to talk to you about it."
"After so many years?"
"Time is no matter."
"I don't understand."
"I'm Werner's wife."
Suddenly, I recognized her. I had seen her in court during the trial. The mysterious fiancée.
"He'd like to meet you."
The past resurfaces. For a while, years ago, after the trial, I belonged in earnest to the journalism brotherhood-I mean the active, dynamic, and above all romantic brotherhood. People came to see me, to ask me questions, to give me leads. It was the best period in my life. The most exciting.
I supplied information and explanations. I commented on events both frivolous and historical. I talked about known people to unknown readers. I thought I was useful. Essential.
"We're here on a visit. Werner would like to see you."
I remember the trial. Not surprising. It's the only one I ever attended. The solemn setting. The judge incarnating a god, but his eyes half open. The anonymous jurors: destiny in twelve faces. The duel between the prosecutor and the defense lawyers. And the defendant: I see him again. Impassive. A living challenge to threats of imprisonment.
Actually, I had discovered journalism well before working in the field. My uncle Méir, early on, considered it the finest profession. It is he who made me appreciate, as an adolescent, the multifaceted world refracted by news and editorials in print. He ranked the committed journalist as the equal of writers and philosophers. In his youth, at New York University, he used to go to the corner coffee shop every day to read the morning papers and sip his cappuccino. If he didn't go, it was because he was unwell or studying for an exceptionally difficult exam. He would then save press clippings for a later time. "See," he used to say to me, "there you are, sitting at your desk or lying on the bed, and without lifting a finger you find out what's happening in faraway countries. Isn't it miraculous?" He was right: no need to travel anymore in order to be informed. The reporter acts as your ears and eyes. And sometimes as your compass or alter ego.
What was it in the press that so interested him? Current events, fleeting and elusive? Political and economic editorials, usually superficial with their respectable optimism or skepticism? The sports pages? Trivial news items in which the acts are more or less the same but the names are new? He was fascinated by the present: he believed in living it to the point of exhaustion. And that, he confessed to me one day, possibly laughing under his breath, was "for purely theological reasons."
When Méir became nearly blind in his old age, one of us-me, Alika, or one of our sons-would read poetry or novels to him.
Méir had no children. To be more precise, he no longer had any. In love with his wife, Drora, a vigorous and rebellious blonde, he used to say, "She's my child." And Drora used to say of him, "He's my lunatic."
Why had he quarreled with my father? They had stopped seeing each other. Was it something about Drora? Or because of their break with family tradition? Admittedly, they were less religious than my grandparents, but was this a reason to stop being in touch?
One day, several years ago, I brought up the issue with my mother. She brushed me aside gently: "I'd rather not talk about it."
"Don't ask me why."
"Is it because of me? Because I have parents and they don't have a son? Why do people refer to him as an unhappy recluse? What is his life all about?"
"Be quiet," said my mother, after turning slightly pale. "One day you'll find out."
"Maybe through him." This was when I felt for the first time that I had come upon a family secret.
My father read the newspapers, too, but not as assiduously. And my grandfather even less assiduously. "Trivial news events are the rage these days," he used to say, stressing the last words. To which he immediately added, "In the old days, major events were." Actually, the past interested him more than the present. Only bound books interested him. Preferably yellowed pages, coated with the dust of the ages.
Good books led him to think about the men chosen by God: he almost resented their being too famous; he would have liked to discover them and keep them all to himself. Between information and knowledge, he used to say, he had a preference for knowledge. And the latter is not found in newspapers.
My grandfather loved contemplating the mystery of transience and the influence of time on language; what seems attractive, dazzling, and profound tomorrow won't be so the day after tomorrow. All these so- called powerful and famous people, in every field, starved for glory and honors, are leading lights today, but sooner or later they are usually forgotten and sometimes despised. So what's the point of ambition?
As for my mother, her hope, of course, was that I would become a lawyer-better yet, a great lawyer. In America, of course. My older brother, Itzhak, a future businessman, predicted I would have a career as an engineer, no doubt because I spent hours as a child taking apart cheap tools and expensive watches, to the great annoyance of our parents.
So, then, how did I become a journalist?
That's another story.
The trial to which the young woman is alluding made a lasting impression on me. I wouldn't be the man I am, trailing a host of ghosts, if I hadn't been present at the deliberations with a mixture of frustration and enthusiasm.
At the time, the young Werner, accused of murder, and his burden of bloodstained memories, had exerted on me a fascination whose traces have yet to fade away. They even affected my relationship with my own family.
Excerpted from The Sonderberg Case by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2010 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.