I often feel like I'm not intelligent to understand what's happening with an Elie Wiesel novel, and The Time of the Uprooted (2005) is no exception. I spent most of the novel feeling lost and wondering where the story was headed, and then I realized that's probably one of the goals, considering the main character is a Holocaust survivor and refugee who hasn't ever found a place for himself.
There are various stories happening at once, interspersed in the book, with enough slips back-and-forth to keep the reader busy trying to keep everything straight. We have (1) Gamaliel's current life in the United States as an older man coming to the end of his days, (2) Gamaliel's Holocaust experience, when he was a young Czech boy left with a Christian cabaret singer, Ilonka, in Hungary, (3) Gamaliel's work as a ghostwriter, (4) the important women in his past, and (5) excerpts from the Book of Secrets that Gamaliel's writing for himself. There are also, in the present time/story one, Gamaliel's good friends, all refugees themselves, and a dying Hungarian woman who may or may not be Ilonka, and the lovely physician taking care of her.
This is a dark, depressing book--right up until the end, which provides such a hopeful, bright departure from the rest of the book that I kept thinking the true end of the book must be missing. No, just another surprise to keep me wondering, I guess, and hoping that maybe, after a long life of loss and displacement, Gamaliel might have found his path--though I worry that he can't escape his past/himself and start over in a way that the ending seems to be hinting at happening.
Since Wiesel's style of writing is just as important as the stories he tells, here's an excerpt from p.100-101:
Right now, it is Ilonka, of all the women who have been part of his life, whom he recalls with the greatest emotion. He recalls her warmth, her voice: Ilonka the devout Christian, faithful friend to his parents, protector of their son. Sometimes in the unfathomable depths of memory, her features dissolve into those of the most tender and sweetest woman in the world, his mother. But what about Colette? And Esther, whose name means "secret"? And Eve, whose voice both concealed and revealed her volcanic temper? Esther, whom he loved forever. Eve, his first true love, who brought together a man and a woman who needed each other to complete their lives. Why had he not urgently proposed marriage to the first? Why had he waited till it was too late with the second? They live on, in a sense, strangely joined in his thoughts. They are always there--sometimes very near, at other times far away--in the mists of nostalgia. How to explain their hold on him? His sense of guilt? But where does love come in? Is love for him anywhere but in the past? "I refuse," said Eve, shaking her head. "I refuse to bottle love up in the past when by its very nature it must transcend the past. My little family was happy because we loved one another. Time did not affect our love, and if you don't understand that, I'm sorry for you. If you don't understand that we--my husband, our daughter, and I--went on loving one another after death, it's because you've never truly loved."
Was she right? Gamaliel answers his own question: No, she wasn't. He did love Eve, yes, with a love that was total; and he loves her still, to the point that it feels like an open wound. But then why did they part?
My overall personal rating of The Time of the Uprooted is a B+. (I still say to go with The Fifth Son if you want to read something by Wiesel.)