A man of mysterious wealth and traumatic background is handed
from one psychoanalyst to another. It is hoped that, because she
shares culture with him, the new doctor can help the patient
better. But the case of Doriel Waldman turns out to be more
complicated and difficult than Thérèse Goldschmidt had
realized it would be. Using Freudian theory, she attempts to
understand and heal him, but her work is thwarted by his
non-compliance: he insists he is just mad.
In the hands of Elie Wiesel, Doriel's madness is not simply
insanity. It is a dysfunction burdened with memory and fear,
responsibility and uncertainty. A MAD DESIRE TO DANCE is not an
easy book to read, but it is a rewarding one as Wiesel takes us
from Polish forests to the dry heat of Jerusalem, from post-war
France to religious Brooklyn neighborhoods. All the while, we, like
Dr. Goldschmidt, are trying to understand the haunted and lonely
Doriel who, in turn, is in search of the smile of a frightened
It is also not an easy book to describe. In post-modernist
terms, our primary narrator, Doriel, is unreliable. He thinks he is
sick but also cultivates his illness. He realizes that the key to
health is locked in his memories but does little to release them.
It is in his relationships with women that Dr. Goldschmidt looks
for answers. Doriel's life is peppered with strange and romantic
encounters with women. Would an unconditional love affair free
Doriel from the demons (actually the dybbuk) in his soul? Wiesel's
latest seems to be about hope and love and how they can be
redemptive forces in even the darkest lives, unless Doriel's
version of the truth cannot be trusted at all.
Filled with references to Jewish scripture, folklore and
history, Doriel's story is often told in manic bursts. His mother
was a Jewish Resistance agent during the war: her blond hair and
flawless Polish allowing her to pass as Aryan. Doriel spent years
in hiding with his father while his mother carried messages back
and forth, occasionally coming to see them. His siblings were
victims of anti-Semitic violence, and though his parents survived
the war, they died before he was 13 --- but not before he learned
more than he wanted to know of his mother's secret life.
Adopted by his loving and patient uncle and whisked away to an
Orthodox community in Brooklyn, Doriel wrestles with faith and
identity. His past, and especially the memory of his parents,
trouble him, and he seeks truths outside his deeply religious
community. Yet, even as his search takes him in what he feels to be
spiritually dangerous directions, the connections to Judaism remain
essential to him.
Doriel's ravings are paired with Dr. Goldschmidt's surprisingly
personal case notes. She becomes obsessed with her odd and sad
patient, and fears she is doing nothing to help him.
A MAD DESIRE TO DANCE is complex and challenging, more about
history, brutality and faith than mental illness. Wiesel's 50th
book is a compelling whirlwind of stories within stories, truths
and half-truths, poetry and mythology. It is sure to amaze and
perhaps even frustrate readers and is yet another important
contribution by Wiesel not only to contemporary Jewish literature
but to world literature as well.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 6, 2011
A Mad Desire to Dance