As a boy in Budapest, Czech refugee Gamaliel Friedman learned to speak Hungarian. Now a ghostwriter in New York City, he's not...

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“The Time of the Uprooted”
by Elie Wiesel
Knopf, 300 pp., $25

As a boy in Budapest, Czech refugee Gamaliel Friedman learned to speak Hungarian. Now a ghostwriter in New York City, he’s not surprised when called to the bedside of an unidentified woman, burned beyond recognition, who speaks only a few words, and those in Hungarian.

In the course of one day, in Elie Wiesel’s new novel “The Time of the Uprooted,” Gamaliel will visit the mysterious woman three times. Between those visits, he reflects back on his life, a study in lost identity, the curse of uprooted Jews whose families were exterminated in the Holocaust, who survived only because Christians hid them from the Nazis. In Budapest, the popular cabaret singer Ilonka hid the young boy Gamaliel when his parents could no longer protect him.

A Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a prolific writer, Wiesel has, in his protagonist Gamaliel, created a restless Holocaust survivor. Like all survivors of horrific evils committed by man against man, Gamaliel carries a burden of memories and lost possibilities that threatens to crush him before he can leave his mark on the world.

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After liberation, as a young man, Gamaliel travels from Budapest to Paris, where he links up with three other refugees, their bond of mutual statelessness secured, perhaps, by survivor’s guilt as much as by their Jewishness. One of his friends is Diego, a Lithuanian Jew and international freedom fighter. Like Gamaliel, Diego is stateless — a condition that affects his sense of his own whereabouts. Here he is in Paris in 1958, dropping in on the Bureau of Missing Persons at police headquarters:

” ‘Yes?’ the clerk said irritably, without looking up, while putting aside his pen and inkwell. Diego waited for the clerk to look up. He wanted to see the man’s eyes. He hated to talk to someone who would not meet his eyes, who would conceal his expression. ‘So?’ the clerk asked. ‘You want something?’

” ‘Yes,’ said Diego.

” ‘Go ahead, I’m listening,’ said the clerk, still looking down at his record books. ‘Who’s missing?’

” ‘I am,’ said Diego.”

Like Gamaliel, Diego knows that “a man without a country is someone to be despised. … People throw you exiles away like old clothes, turn aside as if you smell bad. … Only barely do they grant you the right to talk to the birds, to the trees, to the wind, to the rocks.”

In Paris, Gamaliel tries planting roots. He marries, has children and carries a French identification card. But, as if stateless at the core, Gamaliel finds his French identity doesn’t take. Neither do the marriage and fatherhood. Gamaliel moves on to New York, living there comfortably on the wages of a ghostwriter for a famous novelist. Eventually, his friends from Paris find each other in New York. It’s as if the uprooted have a sort of map to follow, leading eventually to nowhere — but a stop in New York can’t hurt.

Just as he visits the mysterious old woman three times and has three friends with whom he debates spiritual and philosophical matters, Gamaliel completes the classical three-times-three mystical formula and literary device with three great loves: Colette, Esther and Eve, each woman apparently created with the single purpose of driving him mad.

Meanwhile, Gamaliel writes a novel probing his own psychic wounds and laying bare his itinerant soul. Is he searching for differences between Jews and Christians or for spiritual affinities?

Even if statelessness confers some special wisdom, even if the uprooted somehow prepare the way for the Messiah, what does it matter, if a human soul still cannot reside peacefully within its own body? None of Elie Wiesel’s previous protagonists lights the spiritual abyss with quite the clarity of Gamaliel.