Elie Wiesel is responsible for what are unquestionably some of the most important works of literature of the 20th century. His best writings on the Holocaust have a bracing immediacy that uses mere words to insist that the tragedy never be forgotten. The more Wiesel writes, though, the more his books revisit the same territory, and the more he turns to narratives where the characters all but insist, “You must never forget the Holocaust!” This tends to rob his latter-day works of the power that his finest books have without even trying.
The trap of writing about an important event like the Holocaust is in getting swallowed by the importance of the event, and not letting the story exist independently of its message. Wiesel instead lectures the audience early and often in The Sonderberg Case, and the constant scenes of characters philosophizing and telling readers how to think and feel about their ideas drag down a potentially intriguing novel early and often.
The Sonderberg Case’s central idea is a good one. By a fluke of circumstance, drama critic Yedidyah is assigned to cover a prominent murder trial for his newspaper. While he writes about the trial, his reports become wildly popular with the paper’s audience, particularly his recounting of how the defendant, a somber German expatriate named Werner Sonderberg, enters his plea as “guilty and not guilty.” Werner is on trial for the death of his elderly uncle, who plummeted from a cliff in the middle of the wilderness while the two were alone.
Wiesel blends this with the only occasionally revealed backstory of Yedidyah’s past, which entwines with the Holocaust in a way that even he isn’t wholly aware of. As he tries to puzzle out the connection between himself and Werner, his relationships suffer, particularly with his wife. Both halves of this story have good central nuggets, and the passages where Yedidyah reflects on his past are superbly moving. But the good stuff is surrounded by page after page of dissertation.
Sonderberg’s characters don’t talk. They launch into elaborate monologues about the legacy of human sin, or the role of drama in the life of the species, or how no one can fully escape their ancestors’ legacies. All this hyper-weighty dialogue reads as though Wiesel isn’t confident that the audience will confront the issues he wants to talk about without him there to hold their hands. The way the characters speak like they’re in a stilted one-act play might be interesting if the book drew parallels between Yedidyah’s work as a critic and the way he perceives the world (since most of the book is in first person, though Wiesel makes frequent, jarring, and apparently random shifts into third person), but there’s never any sense that this is the case.
In the end, the worst thing about Sonderberg is just how hidebound and stuck-in-time it feels. The characters all cling to newspapers. They seem oddly unaffected by technology. The stage is the center of existence. Writers confronting the horrors of history have the task of bringing history alive for new generations, and in Sonderberg, Wiesel remains frustratingly moored in the 20th century.