Fic­tion

Search­ing For Wallenberg

  • Review
By – May 1, 2015

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 lives in Amherst, MA.

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