Elie Wiesel's Hostage is a chilling novel about a political kidnapping that allows its author to meditate on the power of memory and the peril posed by revolutionary fanaticism.
Set in mid-1970s New York, Hostage recounts the nightmare experience of Shaltiel Feigenberg, a "storyteller" who is seized by two terrorists--one Arab, the other Italian--while walking to his Brooklyn home. The young writer's claim to literary celebrity is modest, and there's no obvious reason he's been singled out. But his ordeal becomes more compelling when we learn he survived the Holocaust as a child in Galicia, hidden by a German count while his father was deported to Auschwitz and his mother died from an untreated medical condition.
Over the course of several days, Feigenberg is beaten and confronted repeatedly by his kidnappers. Ahmed is an abusive, fiery revolutionary, while Luigi, though equally fervent in his radical beliefs, prefers to engage in civilized conversation with his prisoner. "What unites us all," says Luigi, "is a faith in violence as the only way of influencing events."
Unsurprisingly, Wiesel's novel overflows with stories, the chief vehicle Feigenberg relies upon to maintain his sanity. Whether it's the parables of some of the Hasidic masters whose work Wiesel has helped popularize or his protagonist's accounts of the chess matches he played against the German count as a terrified boy, these tales prove, as the mystic One-Eyed Paritus, a recurring character in Wiesel's novels, puts it, "God created man and gave the storytellers the task of saying why."
In contrast to these vivid excavations of memory, the least compelling sections of Hostage are the periodic debates provoked by the terrorists' hatred for the state of Israel and Feigenberg's passionate rebuttal when it becomes clear he's being used as a bargaining chip to secure the release of three Palestinian prisoners. These arguments will sound overly familiar to anyone possessing even a modest familiarity with the Middle East's contemporary history. Wiesel is much more interesting when he reflects on the roots of political radicalism, subtly equating the fanaticism of Luigi and Ahmed with the misguided idealism that impelled Shaltiel's brother to abandon the family and emigrate to Stalinist Russia before repudiating it for life as an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem.
Hostage is an effective summing up of many of the themes Wiesel has pondered in a long and distinguished literary career. "In the face of memory," Shaltiel Feigenberg observes, "joys and sorrows merge." That statement could serve as a fitting epigraph for this spare, provocative work. --Harvey Freedenberg
Shelf Talker: Elie Wiesel uses a political kidnapping to explore the themes of memory and the political fanaticism that inspires terrorism.