In his absorbing new novel Searching for Wallenberg, Alan Lelchuk reflects on the tragedies of modern Jewish history and their present-day legacies through the empathic imagination of Manny Gellerman, a sixty-something professor of history at a New England liberal arts college. Richly drawn and the moral center of the novel, Manny is alert to the foolishness that often characterizes academic life — above all the comedy of aging professors lusting after celebrity (a continuing theme in Lelchuk’s work). Manny, by contrast, cares deeply about his students, and worries about the deformed ethical-political condition of contemporary America in 2006, especially the nation’s ongoing, disastrous war in Iraq. Spry and energetic, “with a glint in his eyes, still swinging” at the plate, Manny often thinks about his boyhood hero, Jackie Robinson. Manny feels, nevertheless, somewhat aimless as he approaches the end of his career; he seeks a project to be passionate about, something to awaken, indeed to claim his profoundly moral sensibility.
In Lelchuk’s invention, the awakening takes the form of Manny’s quest to find the “truth” behind the story — and above all the ultimate fate — of Raoul Wallenberg, the legendary Swedish diplomat and “righteous gentile” who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944 – 1945. Wallenberg, as is well known, distributed Swedish schutzpassn (passports) to Jews, thus making them citizens of neutral Sweden, and immediately liberating them from the fate of the camps, in some instances even handing out schutzpassn to Jews already in trains bound for inevitable death.
Manny, we learn, has always been drawn to the figure of the heroic Wallenberg. He admires his courage; he identifies with his status as outsider; he is enthralled with his risk-taking character; and above all Manny remains overwhelmed and inspired by Wallenberg’s perseverance of will in saving thousands of doomed souls through acts of defiance against the Budapest-occupying Nazis, led in this campaign by the notorious Eichmann himself: “Searching for Raoul daily signaled to Manny’s interior self his desire to be in constant touch with the forgotten soul.”
When Manny discovers that Wallenberg’s daughter may be alive and well, and living (it turns out) a Jewish life in Budapest, he becomes obsessed with this astonishing turn in Jewish and world history. Manny becomes absorbed, as historian, in seeking the veracity of the evidence that might, at last, resolve the continuing mysteries surrounding Wallenberg after his arrest by the Russians, who charged him with spying for America, in 1945. Did Wallenberg survive his Moscow prison ordeal? Did he indeed have a secret family residing in Budapest? Did he die, not by Soviet execution, but much later, in Siberia?
Manny’s search for Wallenberg unleashes Manny’s need, as a Jew, for a connection to Jewish memory and history; Wallenberg, in this respect, looms as Manny’s “secret sharer,” his gentile double, a dissenter who fights against evil on behalf of all outsiders. Thus through the figure of Manny Gellerman, Lelchuk becomes Wallenberg’s faithful “ghostwriter”; in the process, Searching for Wallenberg brings Raoul back to life, reimagined for a generation short on memory, short on authentic heroes.
Lelchuk’s literary strategy in Searching for Wallenberg has a metafictional dimension. The novelist plays with history, staging imaginary encounters between Wallenberg and Manny, or of Raoul languishing in prison, about to be murdered by Stalin’s brutal henchmen. In this respect, Lelchuk creates a “hybrid” work, part authorial mischief (playing with our need to know the truth about Wallenberg), part startling discovery (as in the actual encounter between Lelchuk and Wallenberg’s real-life Lybianka Prison interrogator Daniel Pagliansky, still alive when Lelchuk met him in 2003). Searching for Wallenberg is thus contrapuntal in rhythm; its back-and-forth structure is emblematic of the flow of history, entering and rushing past our consciousness, only to be re-summoned in moments of personal need or historical crisis. The novel may be as close to the “truth” about Wallenberg and why we need to keep his memory alive as we are likely to have. Thanks to Lelchuk, Wallenberg’s ethical example continues to move us with admiration and awe.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Mohegan Lake, NY.