Night is an autobiographical account of an adolescent boy and his father in Auschwitz. A part of Elie Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy, including “Night”, “Dawn” and “Day” – one memoir and two short stories – anguish is turned into historical record; into Holocaust literature. A rare witness to this element of European history, to the front line of humanity, Wiesel records this place of obscene power and suffering. It is a short, sharp, important book, incredible in its significance; its impact way beyond its 133 pages.
It’s hard to approach a book like this: it is almost weighted down in importance, we already know what the story is, who the bad guys are, how it ends. But without even nodding to this point, Wiesel simply presents the detail of his story. It is a rare narrative: a survivor of Auschwitz, grappling with the problem of witnessing.
A guard tells Wiesel and his unit at arrival:
“Remember…Remember it always, let it be graven into your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or the crematorium – the choice is yours.”
There is a cultural memory: we are taught our history, we know what happens, the horror of this extreme edge of humanity still shocks society. There are unique, individual, important stories of the Holocaust, but our society’s inherited emotional memory can be misused by writers utilising these already existing feelings, rather than telling their own stories. There are narratives that overly rely not on our shared knowledge but abuse the embedded cultural emotion, and are lazy in their writing because of it. Characters are not properly developed, and our already existing feelings around the event are relied on to pull is in without creating a legitimate narrative in the piece itself.
But none of this is the case with Wiesel. The writing is at times simple, the problems he faces seemingly so black and white, but with the extremity of the experience coupled with his young mind boil his words and memories down to basic essentials. Testimony can be more problematic than the trauma it seeks to represent; as a witness Wiesel is limited by language as he places himself in the position of those who have lost it. It is a problem of humanity stripped down to total essentials. So little can come out of such horror; there is not sufficient language to express the suffering. But knowing this as a reader, we can look for what has not or cannot be said, in between what Wiesel has managed to recall and record.
“We were the masters of nature, the masters of the world. We had transcended everything – death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth.”
At at certain point, there is nothing left. Breath and food and pain. Not even normal bodily function, your attachment to your father, your unshakable religious faith. At what point are we no longer human; or is the question when do you lose your humanity?
These questions are not entirely posed or answered by Night but it is impossible to read this book without falling in further to the topic. To read Wiesel’s story is to engage with the historical horror that is the Holocaust, as well as our wider cultural problems with its telling. The repetition of this narrative – incomplete representations that are ceaselessly repeated – glosses over the complexities of experience and also refuse other representations through its entrance into cultural consciousness. As Primo Levi said, “…A memory evoked too often, and expressed in the form of a story, tends to become fixed in a stereotype…installing itself in the place of the raw memory and growing at its expense”. The Holocaust is a trauma narrative embedded in collective memory, leaving little room for new or alternative forms of representations. It is a mythical memory that Wiesel has both overcome and contributed to, choosing to express rather than psychologically repress his experience. It is a fine, tense line.