The Sonderberg Case
By Elie Wiesel
Translated by Catherine Temerson
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 178 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 14, 2011
Noble Prize Winning author Elie Wiesel is an elegant writer and novelist. His prose is poetic and a joy to read. His stories are interesting, moving, passionate, suspenseful. He is the author of over fifty books, novels, plays, volumes of conversations, and a cantata. His eloquence and thought-provoking language is seen in this tale posed within the novel: "The story of the two drops of water in the ocean that look for each other in vain and meet only when solitude and nostalgia turn them into tears."
This novel describes the effect that a trial has upon a man and how it causes him to rethink his own life, especially the questions about his past that he hasn't answered. He, Yedidyah, a failed actor turned drama critic, is assigned to cover the murder trial of Werner Sonderberg who allegedly murdered his uncle. He and his editor think of trials as dramas, plays. But is it a drama for the defendant, he asks his editor. You tell me, the editor replies. Although Wiesel does not reveal it, his name Yedidyah is ironic, for while he is tormented by his past, Yedidyah in Hebrew means "beloved by God."
The trial opens with a shock. Asked to plead, Werner Sonderberg states, "Guilty and not guilty." The case seems simple, and the prosecutor is passionately certain that Werner is guilty. Both Werner and the murdered man are Germans. The murdered man, who is elderly, introduces himself to Werner as his uncle. The two get along well, at first. Werner even ignores his fiancée frequently to be with him. The two men decide to go to the mountains for a week's rest. While there, they go off on the third day for a walk in the mountains. A maid later testifies that she heard the two men arguing before the walk. Werner returns from the walk alone, checks out of the hotel, and travels home. A day later, his uncle's body is found at the bottom of a cliff. The prosecutor insists that Werner pushed him to his death.
Yedidyah's report of the trial is woven into his ruminations about his as-of yet not fully disclosed life. It includes the tales of two women: a German non-Jewish heroine who is tormented into insanity by fellow German town people because of her heroism, and Yedidyah's wife, who he almost leads into despair because of his obsession with Werner's trial. Who is Werner, who is his uncle, and who is Yedidyah? What happened on the mountain top? Are the lives of Yedidyah and Werner comparable or are they mirror images? The result of the interweaving of tales is a tapestry of art, a montage of striking colors of many hues, tragic depictions of several lives.
Will Yedidyah and Werner ever find meaning in their lives, fulfillment, solace, love? Can they accept the last wisdom of Yedidyah's "grandfather": "Yes, my child, life is a beginning; but everything in life is a new beginning. As long as you're alive, you're immortal because you're open to the life of the living" to the warm presence of others, to the world, to joy?