Monday, September 17, 2012

Finding "Night"

I was vacuuming all the empty bedrooms upstairs, the ones where my daughters used to sleep (sigh), and I ran across things I could pilfer. I found a bottle of nail polish, and now my nails look nicer than they have for a long time. I found a bottle of air freshener that will come in handy where the cats are concerned, and I found a book I had heard about but had not yet read, Elie Wiesel’s Night. I decided that as soon as I finished the house cleaning, I would sit down to read the book and have it finished by Sunday evening. It’s only about 120 pages.

Wiesel was 15 when his Romanian-born family was evacuated to a Nazi concentration camp, and Night is his account of those events. You’d think such a first-hand telling would take more than 120 pages, and printed with generous leading at that, but one thing that makes this book so compelling is that he takes only that number of pages, a sparse number of words, to tell his story.

When describing the day-to-day survival of concentration-camp living, if you can call it living, there isn’t room for sentimentality, although plenty of writers have tried to squeeze it in. And there isn’t room for lots of description of surroundings or characters or detailed impressions of events and feelings. It doesn’t matter if the sky is Wedgewood blue or Tupperware gray when men beside you are being beaten to death for a scrap of bread or selected for the crematorium because they are frail or shot in the head based on nothing but an armed guard’s whim. Descriptive flourish is no helpful tool when you’re telling everyone about a horror.

What Wiesel demonstrates for the rest of us who can’t possibly imagine being imprisoned in a concentration camp is that a human being forced into that situation stops being a human being. When you witness friends die, and family die and brutality that is the stuff of nightmares, you shrink inside yourself and stop reacting. You stop caring, or at least expressing any detectable concern, even for your own father. And exactly how many words does it take to make that point?

In his introduction, Wiesel wrote, “If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one.” He went on to write many others, but this was the key book for him. I finished reading it as I was sitting outside watching my dog nose around the side yard. He was waiting for me to get up from my chair and play with him. I read the last page and Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize speech from 1986, and then I got up and threw the toy for the dog and cheered him on as he brought it back to me.

I wasn’t sure what to do with this stark telling of stark madness, and I thought only to throw the toy. I still don’t know what to do with the story of Night, which wasn’t new information, really, but I feel as though I am expected to do something, something other than play with my dog. Near the end of the Prize speech, Wiesel said, “We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.” I suppose if sharing them is so important, then accepting them is just as important and is enough.

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