No Direction Home


By Elie Wiesel
320 page. Knopf. $25.

Elie Wiesel has eerily good timing with his latest novel. At the very moment our nation is obsessed with refugees and our front pages and television screens are filled with images of people driven from their homes, Wiesel offers us The Time of the Uprooted.

The characters in this novel are uprooted from a place that's very different from the Big Easy. Ig is thousands of miles away, a world of more than 60 years ago, and a world of horrors even more ghastly than fear-filled nights on the floor of the New Orleans Superdome. But reading how Wiesel's main character, Gamaliel, describes what it means to be a refugee, one can't help feeling that his words resonate well with the images we see while our eyes are locked on CNN.

"For you," says his friend Bolek, who, like Gamaliel, is an elderly Holocaust survivor who remained in Europe after the war and then eventually made his way to America, "being a refugee is a sort of disease."

Wiesel continues: “Gamaliel was thinking, Yes, it's a disease, a disease that afflicts the entire world. But it must be recognized that a refugee is a different kind of being, one from whom all that defines a normal person has been amputated. He belongs to no nation, is welcome at no one's table. A leper. He can achieve nothing unless others help him."

The people who fled New Orleans and other Gulf Coast towns last month certainly would find this a bleak description of their future. This bleakness is the overarching motif of the novel, and Wiesel returns repeatedly to the refugee theme, as he jumps back and forth between descriptions of Gamaliel's present-day existence in New York and his life in hiding during the war, with scenes from his life as a husband, father, and lover mixed in. To Gamaliel—and, one presumes, to Wiesel—once a refugee, always a refugee. Once made stateless, whether by war or natural disaster or the incomprehensible destruction of your entire family and community, stateless you remain, no matter where you move and how permanent you make your new home.

But the bleak tone and theme does not mean that this is a novel of complete despair. Instead, The Time of the Uprooted is an engaging and even entertaining read. Despite his faults—his failures with women, his estrangement from his daughters, his seeming inability to relate to anyone outside of his group of fellow Holocaust survivor friends—Gamaliel is a likable character. The reader easily feels drawn in by the story of Gamaliel's survival as a young boy in Budapest during the war and his passion for Ilonka, the fearless Hungarian cabaret singer who saved him, and also inspired by the possibility of new love with a doctor that Gamaliel meets at the hospital when he goes to visit a dying patient. The connection Gamaliel feels toward his friends Bolek, Gad, Yasha, and Shalom is touching. And his struggles professionally, as a ghost writer saving his real talent for his own secret novel, the book's story-within-a-story, add depth to his character.

But this story within a story is also the book's main fault. Threaded throughout the main narrative are selected excerpts from Gamaliel's own book, The Book of Secrets. While Gamaliel's novel deals with many of the same themes apparent in his life—the presence or absence of God, the struggle to preserve community, the plight of someone who has been dispossessed—the story and characters of The Book of Secrets are not nearly as compelling as the primary story itself. Reading the somewhat lengthy passages that Wiesel includes, it's easy to wish that he would continue the main story instead of letting the reader get sidetracked by The Book of Secrets.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that it is the writing of The Book of Secrets that gives Gamaliel's life meaning. His life has been full of secrets—living secretly in hiding, writing novels and other books secretly while someone else gets the credit. So it is through this one book, the one major work that Gamaliel plans to put his own name on, that Gamaliel feels he might locate himself in the world and therefore rid himself of the disease of being a refugee. When Bolek and Gamaliel have the conversation about the condition of being a refugee, Colette, the woman who will become Gamaliel's unhappy wife, replies, "But as far as I know, that disease is not incurable." Gamaliel's life since the war has been an attempt at making that cure possible, a struggle to reconnect with “all that defines a normal person,” by finding love and finding a home. Despite his dark outlook, at the end of the book, it indeed seems like even Gamaliel might be capable of being cured.