Elie Wiesel, Night (Bantam, 1960)
[originally posted 17Sep2001]
The first novel in Wiesel’s well-known holocaust trilogy (Night, Dawn, and The Accident) was originally passed off by Wiesel as autobiography. While it’s as incorrect to call Night complete fiction as it would be to hang that tag on, say, Bukowski’s novel Hollywood, there’s still an air of duplicity about it. Exaggerating and playing up the details of the production of a Hollywood film can be seen as amusing; exaggerating and playing up the details of Auschwitz is probably best left to Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. Wiesel himself admitted the book contains fictional content decades ago, yet it’s still marketed—and, more depressingly, assigned to high school readers—as straight autobiography. We’re raising a generation who still believe the holocaust is called the holocaust because the Nazis lined up Jews in front of flaming trenches and pushed them in alive.
That said, I finally got over my distaste for Wiesel himself and cracked the cover on this. As a novel, there’s certainly much to be said for it. It could be argued that Wiesel’s style here is the basis for much of what’s come to be known as extreme fiction (splatterpunk, etc.)—Wiesel wouldn’t allow himself to write about the holocaust for ten years after its end, and that time allowed him to adopt a detached, almost journalist-style air. Detachment, as we all know, is a much better way of getting horror across than high emotion. The book is quick and coherent, and Wiesel writes with an easy lucidity. The book is simple and easy to follow without the feeling that the author is ever talking down to his audience, which is definitely a point on the positive side. In fact, the only negative I can come up with about the text itself isn’t really a negative at all—there’s another description of the forced march that takes up the last third of Night in Miklos Nyiszli’s book Auschwitz, and Nyiszli goes into a bit more detail, which allows the reader to get a more personal view of the event. However, that’s not to take anything away from Wiesel’s account.
Certainly worth reading, but remember—it IS a novel. ** ½