I grabbed Elie Wiesel‘s “The Accident” off the shelf of a library without knowing what I am getting myself into. I read it without knowing that it is the third, concluding book of his Night/Dawn/Day trilogy; “The Accident” was the original title of “The Day.” Based on the cover and the first page I thought that I found a novel by Wiesel which is not about the Holocaust. But halfway through the book I realized I was mistaken. I understand that surviving the Holocaust is such a life-altering experience that the rest of one’s life may seem a reflection on that. “Experience” is not even the right word for it as what people encountered in the camps changed who they were, left the deepest mark not just on but in the abyss of the soul of most survivors.
That is certainly the case for the protagonist of Wiesel’s book, who suffers a near fatal car accident 15 years or so after the Shoah. Slowly we learn who are the people around him, how he got to know them, and how they help and hinder his recovery. The most important person for him is his lover, with whom he has a complex relationship. She has strong self-depreciating and masochistic tendencies and he is fighting his way through various methods to help her without hurting her. At the same time he is fighting his own demons of the Holocaust syndrome. The second person is the doctor who saved his life with his operations, but who seems to have fallen for his lover. Whether this longing is unrequited or not stays ambiguous. Finally, his old friend a larger-than-life Hungarian painter, who operates more on the intuitional level than anybody else in the novel, makes a deal with him that makes it impossible to slip away from life. They both honor the deal and the outcome is a new zest for life or at least renewed appreciation for the gift of life.
Telling the story or describing the characters doesn’t do justice to the book. Its strength comes from the razor sharp description of thoughts, emotions, and attitudes of inner struggles and their external manifestations in the form of dialogues. I knew that I should have made notes or marked sentences for later recollection, but I missed doing so. Now, I would need to go back and re-read it to find passages that felt revelatory to me at the time of reading. There were quite a few that are now lost until next reading. Wiesel not just knows the secret of how the human soul works, but also manages to share it in a way that makes you feel awe and shame for not realizing those very same truths yourself. That’s the feeling I came away from the book,. This is the best and most I can say about any book or any person. Read it with your heart and not just with your eyes.
P.s. I found an extended study guide, complete with quotes here. Below is a line from the guide’s free version) that is worth pondering upon even if you end up not reading the book (or buying the full study guide):
“To talk to a stranger is like talking to stars: it doesn’t commit you.”