Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Review: Open Heart, by Elie Wiesel

Open Heart, by Elie Wiesel 
translated by Marion Wiesel 
Alfred A. Knopf 
79 pages 

With all that Elie Wiesel has lived through,and with all the horrors of life that he has experienced firsthand, one might assume (as I erroneously did) that he would be all right - at peace, even - with the possibility of dying.

You would be wrong.

"Long ago, over there, death lay in wait for us at every moment, but it is now, eternities later, that it shall have its way. I feel it." (pg. 17)

"Hadn't I lived with death, even in death? Why should I be afraid now? Yet, this is not how I imagined my end. And in no way did I feel ready. So many things still to be achieved. So many projects to be completed. So many challenges yet to face. So many prayers yet to compose, so many words yet to discover, so many courses yet to give, so many lessons yet to receive." (pg. 22-23)

At the time of the writing of this book, Elie Wiesel is 82 years old and facing heart bypass surgery. Open Heart, then, is Wiesel's perfectly-titled reflection on his life as he prepares for what could be the end of it.

And that's where, despite his extraordinary life, Elie Wiesel is no different than anyone else facing his or her own mortality in the form of a scary diagnosis or medical condition. In such instances, it's natural to reflect back on one's life and work, to recount the decisions made and the roads travelled.

He shares how he met his wife Marion, their life's work together, and his joyful memories on the birth of their son and grandchildren. He returns to the Holocaust, the pain of losing all of his immediate family in a concentration camp and his devotion to them. ("In truth, my father never leaves me. Nor do my mother and little sister. They have stayed with me, appearing in every one of my tales, in every one of my dreams. In everything I teach." pg. 53)

In Open Heart, there are questions. Big ones, without answers. (At least, not right now.)
"Have I performed my duty as a survivor? Have I transmitted all I was able to? Too much, perhaps? ....I feel the words [in Night] are not right and that I could have said it better...In my imagination, I turn the pages." (pg. 40-41)
If it seems as if I'm quoting more from this slim little book than offering my own thoughts, I am. I mean, hello! - it's Elie Wiesel. He just has a way with words, and while there aren't many in them in Open Heart (a book that I read in less than an hour), they are ones that most of us - when faced with a health scare of our own - could relate to.

(They are ones that have, for many reviewers of this book, been panned for being either too trite or not enough. My take is the opposite; this is meant to be a comfort, I think, for people who are going through their own trials.)

Open Heart ends optimistically. (Wiesel obviously survives his bypass surgery, even with the surgeon telling him upon his awakening, "You've come back from far away.") It is a reaffirmation of what kind of person one wants to be with whatever time is left remaining and a call to action to each of us to open our own hearts in making the necessary choices.
"A credo that defines my path:
I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either.
Was it yesterday - or long ago - that we learned how human beings have been able to attain perfection in cruelty? That for the killers, the torturers, it is normal, thus human, to act inhumanely? Should one therefore turn away from humanity?
The answer, of course, is up to each of us. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves.  Or not.
I know - I speak from experience - that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free inside a prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor. That one instant before dying, man is still immortal.
There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man. I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed and perverted by the enemies of mankind. And I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console." (pg. 72-73)

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