Once again, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning author bases his fiction on the cold reality of the Holocaust. This time, Elie Wiesel writes about the lingering effects of the Shoa, but through a device that is at once thought-provoking and exasperating.
Yedidah is a theater critic for a New York daily newspaper. His editor gets the bright idea to pull him out of his comfort zone to have him cover a sensational murder case: a German national on trial for murdering his newly acquainted elderly uncle during a trip to the mountains of upstate New York. After all, the editor theorizes, isn’t the courtroom a real-life stage, with the defendant, attorneys, and witness all playing roles? That the defendant enters a plea of “Guilty…and not guilty” adds to the mystique.
But Yedidah has doubts about this set-up, as well as about his writing skills in general, his flagging relationship with his wife and parents, and his own identity as he wallows in middle age disquietude. All these concerns are at the heart of The Sonderberg Case as Wiesel tries to cram a lot into a scant 178 pages.
While he is a skilled, award-winning author who deserves all the honors bestowed on him for works such as Night and The Oath, among others, he seems out of his element in the current setting. The prosecutor’s dialogue as he questions a witness seems less than believable; what self-respecting defense attorney would allow his learned opponent to carry on such a harangue? Suffice it to say the courtroom scenes will not make readers forget about John Grisham (or even Law and Order) any time soon. Similarly, a deus ex machina moment will leave some less-patient readers shaking heads.
The outcome of the trial leads to a confrontation years later between Yedidah and Sonderberg in which the German expatriate explains his inscrutable plea. This in turn, causes the fictional writer to question several of his long-held beliefs about his own identity.
A few characters come and go without any real contribution to the narrative. A casual flirtation between Yedidah and a coworker serves only to briefly exacerbate the confusion he feels towards his wife. Wiesel also employs a confusing editorial technique: While Yedidah speaks in the first person for most of the novel, the author switches — seemingly on a whim — to writing about him in the third person at other times.
If readers are willing to hang in through these rough spots, they will be rewarded with a sad and thoughtful payoff.