Recent Fiction

The Plant, The Well, The Angel

by Vassilis Vassilikos, translated by Edmund Keeley, by Mary Keeley
Knopf, 273 pp., $5.95

The Town Beyond the Wall

by Elie Wiesel, translated by Stephen Becker
Atheneum, 179 pp., $3.95

Death as a Way of Life

by Francisco Ayala, translated by Joan MacLean
Macmillan, 218 pp., $4.95

Vassilis Vassilikos is a writer who deals in fables and prodigies, but the cast of his imagination is as much Gothic as Greek. In the first of his three novellas a student on the prowl follows a strange girl through the streets of Salonika until she disappears into a maze of unfamiliar alleyways. Having lost her in the labyrinth, he promptly christens her Ariadne. For an instant I thought we were in for some modern-dress mythology, and my heart sank. But I was quite wrong; Mr. Vassilikos’ vein of fantasy is all his own, and he exploits it zestfully. When the student eventually finds out where the girl lives, he breaks in and steals the shrub which she was carrying in a flowerpot when he first saw her. Despite his mother’s protests he installs the plant in the family apartment, pretending that he needs it for his scientific studies, and proceeds to dote on it like a lover. A simple little story of boy-meets-shrub? Wrong again: the fantasy is taken further, this time with a comic slant. The boy’s parents go off for the summer, and he is left alone with the plant. Already thriving, it now shoots up and burgeons to monstrous proportions, like a pantomime beanstalk. Branches and tendrils force themselves through the floorboards and sprout along the electric wiring system of the entire apartment block. Strange creaking noises start to plague the tenants, who try to explain them away as best they can, each according to his humor: the patriot patriotically, the psychoanalyst psychoanalytically, and so forth. At last a root winds itself out into the elevator shaft, and the culprit is tracked down. The neighbors invade the apartment, and hack away at the miniature jungle which they find inside. The plant dies—and with it (so far as I can tell from the muddy concluding paragraphs) the hero’s adolescent daydreams.

Although the blurb suggests that all three of his stories are about Love—what else?—an equally good case could be made out for Mr. Vassilikos’ true theme being immaturity. His heroes are youthful, introspective, awkward, unsure of themselves; their thoughts are confused, their feelings misty. The student in “The Plant” is morbidly sensitive to the noise and clatter of the neighbors; he values the magic shrub because it can absorb sound “like blotting-paper” and banish the threat of the outside world. The second story, “The Well,” is about a kind of initiation ordeal which culminates in a glimpse of sterility and sexual horror. A young man, showing the new servant girl how to work an elaborate and dangerous well on his father’s estate, climbs down deeper and deeper; near the bottom he gets trapped, and she has to rescue him. In both stories the grotesque detail is adroitly handled, with a circumstantial vividness which heads off the eager symbol-hunter. The third story, set in Heaven, is less satisfactory. A newly arrived trainee angel writes a letter (which will never be delivered …

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