Knopf, 2002 (ISBN 0375409092)
Some books come along -- glorious fantasies, epics, surreal Burroughsesque visions -- that challenge the way their readers see the world outside. Other books, more subtle and discreet, challenge their readers from within, force them to question their lives, beliefs, attitudes about sex, love, the Divine, politics, war, or whatever else might be firmly established in those readers' minds. With The Judges, distinguished author Elie Wiesel -- known for his international best-sellers Night and A Beggar in Jerusalem -- has achieved this latter type of novel.
The story begins after a plane leaving the U.S. for Israel is forced to make a bad-weather landing in a small snowbound town. The passengers are taken in by various townsfolk, and five of them around whom this novel centers, are given shelter by a bizarre fellow who refers to himself only as "The Judge." The Judge begins a game of sorts by prodding the five stranded travelers with questions about their lives, their histories, the things that make them who they are. However, the five soon learn that this may not be a game, and begin to see the seriousness of the situation when The Judge issues his judgment that one of them will die by morning:
"For the love of heaven," yelled Bruce, his anger rising and falling in successive waves,
"we must do something! Whether it's a game or not once and for all we must get out of this
goddamned whorehouse of a prison!"
He twisted his red scarf and made it into a running knot, as if he intended to strangle
"I just love it when you say 'once and for all,'" replied Claudia. "But would you care
to explain how you propose to set about knocking down these walls and making the storm
abate?" She turned to Yoav. "And you, brave officer of an invincible army, what do you
think? What do you plan to do? Do you have a plan for liberating us from this prison?
Because we needn't kid ourselves any longer. We're sure as hell in prison."
The story takes its most inward turn toward the end when The Judge informs the five that they themselves, as part of the game, must decide who dies. They begin to question each other, made judges themselves. They attack and withdraw, defend their lives, their reasons for living.
The Judges is a gripping thriller without the physical movements of, say, a Clive Barker or John Grisham novel. It reminds more of the introspective call to self-exploration in Camus's Fall, mixed with the tension and self-despair of a man preparing for his own execution in Sartre's short story "The Wall." While all this deep introspection goes on, however, one never bores from lack of excitement or lack of possibility. Things are happening in the minds of the characters and of the readers as well.
Wiesel's writing also flows with the heated smoothness of a sermon, while never losing that humility and inward loathing of a confession. It carries the reader through this night of dread and wonder.
Recommendation: Don't just buy the book; ask its questions and have the courage to answer them. There's much to be gained by exploring the self through the eyes of these fictional strangers, and with the relative safety of distance they themselves never feel.