The Gates of the Forest
The Last Gentleman
Elie Wiesel, who as a child was deported to Auschwitz and survived only by a remote chance, has experienced in his own person the ravages of an evil so vile as to be almost beyond comprehension; and he has courageously set himself the task of comprehending it in literature. Wiesel has already written a documentary account of his experience in his shattering short book Night (1958); now, in The Gates of the Forest, he works over the theme again, this time not only as a witness and victim but in the spirit of a man trying to solve an urgent philosophical problem: Having survived, how can we go on living in a world where such things happen?
The Gates of the Forest has a plot which would be quite adequate to the needs of an ordinary novel of suspense and tragedy, but in fact its main concern is to present a series of symbolic episodes which are strung out along the narrative thread. All these episodes concern the question of identity. It is as if the survivor, living on when so many have died, felt the need to live out in his own person the unfulfilled lives of all his companions: felt, indeed, the pressure of all the dead, demanding that he should realize their possibilities, live for them, act out their histories. Gregor, the Jewish adolescent who manages to slip out before the ghetto closes on him, and takes refuge in a cave in the forest, is beset at once with the problem of identity. Seeking sanctuary with an old family servant, he is compelled to act the part of a deaf-mute under the eyes of the inquisitive villagers, who first accept him with pity but soon begin to use him as a confidant for their sins and troubles; since he can (apparently) neither hear what they say nor answer back, he is the ideal scapegoat to lighten their burdens, and even the village priest puts Gregor in the confessional box and confesses to him. This process leads ultimately to a frenzied scene in which Gregor is chosen to play the part of Judas in a religious drama written by the village schoolmaster. The other actors, quickly joined by the audience, fall into a mass hysteria in which they suddenly see Gregor as Judas and go mad with rage. He is saved from death only by the intervention of someone who happens to be outside the hysterical circle. Here we have a neat allegory of the history of the Jew in modern Europe; but that is only the beginning for Mr. Weisel is not content with any such simple objective, and Gregor is forced by the pressure of his experiences to assume role after role, to act out the lives of his fellow Jews who have been killed or who will be killed later on.
Thus, for instance, the Judas theme is repeated when Gregor falls in with the partisans, goes on an unsuccessful mission which results in the…
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