The Sonderberg Case by Elie Wiesel *WOW*

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


The Sonderberg Case
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 Meir; 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.

Couple of weeks back, I went to the library to pick a book from the new books shelf, but found it suddenly unavailable. Which was good because I found this book instead - The Sonderberg Case by Elie Wiesel. I still have Elie Wiesel's Night sitting on my shelf, and I really want to read it - I promise, except I'm not sure what I'm waiting for. Night is a slim book, but if The Sonderberg Case is any indication, I'm sure it also packs in a whopping punch! Since I had no idea regarding what this book was about, and I found the cover very alluring, I went home with this book instead.

In The Sonderberg Case, drama critic Yedidyah is asked to cover the murder of Werner Sonderberg's uncle by the nephew himself. Not having even an iota of knowledge about courts and their operation, Yedidyah did not think it a great idea for him to write about a very important trial, but his editor had full faith in him. Rather than view the trial as a routine courtroom event, Yedidyah focuses his drama-trained lens at the proceedings and writes about it as he would review a play. The trial ends up making a huge impact on Yedidyah, causing him to rehash old memories and question choices made by him and his ancestors.

I absolutely loved Elie Wiesel's prose. I found it a truly delightful and introspective experience as I pondered over Yedidyah's thoughts and questions. I found myself hooked right from the first sentence, and that was without knowing anything about the book or what to expect. Most of the book gave me the feel of reading a drama, in honor of the lead character's passion. It's not a play at all, but it's not regular fiction either. We follow a few characters whose choices constitute the book, and it is those choices that we as readers deliberate on.

There are several powerful themes explored in this book. Significant among them is that of guilt - Not exactly a guilt brought on by your own actions, rather the one caused by the actions of your ancestors - guilty because your ancestor was a Nazi; guilty because you survived WW2 when your whole family was murdered. Guilty because you feel you are responsible for your ancestor's actions. Guilty because you now live for a million other people. I found this a very interesting premise, because I usually read WW2 novels set in that period, or books that follow the survivors years later. But it's rarely that we come across one that actually makes you look at the descendants and wonder what they are going through. (I do understand that it's not meant to be generic, but there are probably people who go through the same emotions.) I thought the author covered this aspect impressively, because I did get the impression that it's not a black and white issue, rather the feelings run deep, deep enough that it can affect your choices for the rest of your life. How do you try to isolate your past from the present?

Yedidyah as a character felt like a sponge to me - someone who doesn't know what to do or what he wants, but finds out on the way through conversations with people. His grandfather was his biggest influence. In one sense, he was adventurous, in the other, not so steady. Most of the time, he questions about life, chance and existence. In fact, the book is philosophically charged, but never preachy. I loved how the questions asked were ones to which even as a reader I couldn't give an answer. 

One interesting thing I noted was the switch between first and third person narration in this book, even though both are from the perspective of the same person. While in the first person narration, Yedidyah is mostly looking at his current state of affairs and desparing over his life. The third person narration mostly establishes the past and what led Yedidyah to his present state. There is some overlap, since the distinction isn't exactly set in concrete. But, I didn't find the switch distracting - it only made me curious. The only problem with having a single narrator (a device I no longer seem to enjoy as much) is that the other characters felt a bit flat and one-dimensional to me. I found I could easily stereotype the other cast.

The narration, however, is not straight-forward. At one moment, the author is talking about the trial, in the next moment, the focus is on the narrator's grandfather, then his education, then the defendant, then the trial again, the professor, then Jerusalem and back to the grandfather and the Holocaust. It took me a while to get used to it. But I never got lost. Rather, I savored it - the author was really able to hold my interest in all the threads. At first, I couldn't understand the purpose for the jumping around, but soon it became clear that most of it is the build-up. In the present, Yedidyah is very disillusioned and it is evident the trial had something to do with that. But eventually, it turned out to be something much deeper and the trial a trigger. What I did find confusing was the timeline. There were some events that I couldn't exactly place chronologically. I knew if they were the before or the after, but not exactly when before or when after.

Except for those jarring points, I thought the book was powerful. Eventually the timeline didn't matter to me, as I felt very moved by this book. I kept vacillating between 4 and 5 stars, but when I wasn't boxing the book into a rating, I found myself wondering about the questions the book was asking. I also happened to read it at the right time - when I was looking for something significant and profound to get me out of my reading rut. Eventually, I realized that I enjoyed the book a lot, isn't that what matters in the end?


I borrowed this book from my library.


19 comments:

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

This does sound like a very powerful book.  My son read Night in high school and has told me repeatedly that I NEED to read it.  The book really affected him and I feel like I need to be in the right mood to read it, so I understand your hesitancy with it.

Patti Smith said...

I think you will love NIGHT...I toured the Holocaust museum a few weeks ago for the first time and now I want to re-read it.  You won't be the same...but it's a good not the same...very emotional though.

hcmurdoch said...

Sounds a bit jarring with the back and forth narrative, but I am a fan of Elie Wiesel. So glad you stumbled upon this book (maybe it will motivate you to read Night?).

Misha said...

I LOVED Night! I have no idea why it never occurred to me to check out the author's other books.
Like Night, even this seems like an emotional, powerful read. Great review!

Lena said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm usually not fond of perspective shifts, unless it's done effortlessly and I can't tell. If I notice it straight off, I'm not happy. This sounds quite intriguing and powerful. Thanks for sharing.

Kim @ Sophisticated Dorkiness said...

Wow, sounds good! I'm a little embarrassed to admit I've never read Elie Wiesel at all; I somehow missed Night when I was in school. 

Celawerd said...

It sounds like a great book. Yes, you defiently need to read Night. It's mind blowing because it's true. Even if it was fiction, it would still be a horrifing book.

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) said...

Night is such a dark but powerful book.  You really must read it.  I hadn't heard of this book until your review, but it sounds fascinating.  I'll  link to your review on War Through the Generations.

christa @ mental foodie said...

I haven't read Night either, even though I kept hearing about it. But I think I have to read it when I am in the right mood... like when I am busy I need something light, but when I want something inspiring I'd read the heavier books... glad this one get you out of the rut!

Athira / Aths said...

I agree - I want to be sure that I am in the right mood before I pick it to read. That's primarily what made this book work for me, it's really thought-provoking and a wrong mindset can upset the enjoyment.

Athira / Aths said...

I can't wait to read NIGHT. After Sonderberg Case, I know it's going to be a powerful read. I also want to visit the Holocaust Museum some time. I didn't realize it was in DC. I'm going to have to check it out.

Athira / Aths said...

Even I assumed that Night (and its sequels) are the only books written by Elie Wiesel. So I was surprised to see this one at my library. I have to read Night soon.

Athira / Aths said...

I would have said the same thing about Elie Wiesel about two weeks ago. I've mostly been terrified of reading his books - what if I didn't get the point. But now I can't wait to read Night.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm glad you endorse Night highly. I can't wait to read it either. It's a good thing that I have a copy of that on my shelf.

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks for linking, Anna! I cannot wait to read Night now. This book was so good!

Athira / Aths said...

I agree with you - the mood is very critical. I happened to be in the right mood for this one, which is why it worked for me so well. Now I can't wait to read Night.

christa @ mental foodie said...

I visited the Holocaust Museum back in 1999. I had limited time in DC (was on a travel tour, and only a half day free time in DC) so wanted to pack in as many museums as possible. The Holocaust one might not be as flashy as some other ones, but it was the most emotional one for me, and the one I remembered the most.

Athira / Aths said...

The lack of "flashiness" is actually a great thing. The other museums, while really good, felt showy to me, like they were being promoted and hyped a lot. I had been to DC twice - wish I had known about the Holocaust museum earlier. Still, no issues, DC is just 3 hours from here. I guess I can sneak in a trip some day during the summer.

christa @ mental foodie said...

Can't wait to see what you think. Of course, I don't know if things have changed since 12 years ago!