Searching for Wallenberg, a Review
Searching for Wallenberg: A Novel by Alan Lelchuk.(Mandel Vilar Press, 288 pp. $26.95)
Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the latter years of World War II. Known for his cunning and cool demeanor, Wallenberg used his diplomatic post to issue protective passports and put together a string of assorted safe houses to save those otherwise doomed. Wallenberg became a legend as one of the most courageous humanitarians of his time.
Enter the fictional Manny Gellerman, a senior history professor at Dartmouth College. His career has cooled down from its early promise and he has, as they say, very little currently on his plate.
When one of his graduate students returns from a research trip to Hungary, she unloads the fantastic story of Wallenberg’s secret family. Searching for Wallenberg traces the thin line separating the “facts” of Wallenberg’s life and Gellerman’s fictional inventions.
Gellerman is a world-class worrier as well as a man prone to deep ambivalence. His daily life is a struggle between “for better or worse,” “for good or ill” and “for facts versus invention.” From the moment Gellerman first learns about Wallenberg’s secret Hungarian family, he is hooked, and he begins his own pursuit of the elusive, mysterious Wallenberg.
Gellerman claims that he is writing a novel, one that will combine hard research with fictional scenes. For some, this is where history at the cutting edge is going; for others, the results are neither fiction nor history. Gellerman shares aspects of both positions:
“Shifting from his historian role to the growing, more fragile role of screenwriter, [Gellerman] felt stronger just now, armed with the evidence of the recent interview. His challenge was how to turn that recent preternaturally real hour into the distant faraway hours of the powerfully imagined.”
Gellerman’s conclusions—that Wallenberg was a closeted gay or that he was a double agent working for the Americans as well as the Nazis—will not play well with those who think of Wallenberg as just short of being the Messiah. They would not be alone, for Gellerman also wonders if any good can come from his effort to substitute the legend of Wallenberg with what he sees as the truth. Ultimately, in his imagination, Gellerman becomes Wallenberg every bit as much as Wallenberg becomes Gellerman—and, needless to say, the search for the real Wallenberg continues with Gellerman’s efforts to authenticate key Wallenberg documents.
The seemingly endless search exhausts Gellerman as it will surely exhaust many of Lelchuk’s readers. Once the central trope of historiography and fiction has been established (often brilliantly), the rest—at least 200 pages—is repetition.
Lelchuk is best known for wild-and-woolly novels such as American Mischief (University of Wisconsin Press) and Ziff: A Life? (Carroll & Graf). In this sense, Searching for Wallenberg is disappointing rather than a disappointment.
Wallenberg deserves better, some readers will insist, and they will be right.