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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) to the girl back home whom he lost to a rival, largely through his own weakness. But his long and anguished recapitulation of their affair doesn’t jell with the whimsical picture of Heaven as a human, all-too-human military camp, where rookies are knocked into shape by unseraphic sergeants. The idea of celestial basic training has possibilities, but it is too skittish to carry the moral significance for which the author strains elsewhere in the story.

Vassilikos is an attractive writer who brings off some bold strokes. Sometimes, admittedly, the manner as well as the matter is adolescent: there are affectations, empty bubbles of rhetoric, passages where the sense is hopelessly blurred. But the best of his work has a firm outline, a hard sunlit clarity, and even the most outlandish of his inventions are usually persuasive. In fact he is more of a realist than a plot-summary would suggest. The apartment-block in “The Plant,” for instance, could come straight out of a superior slice-of-life continental movie, and the other tenants sound potentially more rewarding company than the besotted youth with his proliferating greenery. The actual descent down “The Well,” along rope ladders and rusty pipes, is very effectively done. Even “The Angel” is not undiluted fantasy; stripped of its heavenly trappings it would make a convincing sketch of army life. It wouldn’t be surprising if in future books Vassilikos moved away from his parables towards more conventional forms. Meanwhile he has been well served by the self-effacing skill of the Keeleys, whose translation reads beautifully.

It is difficult, and perhaps undesirable, to be wholly objective about the work of Elie Wiesel. The author of Night has claims on our interest, admiration, and sympathy which outweigh the routine demands of criticism. On the other hand, his writing can be stiff and theatrical, and I remember being embarrassed by Dawn, which seemed to me a poor book. Luckily there is much less of a problem with The Town Beyond the Wall, an ambitiously conceived and passionately executed work which has very considerable merits in its own right. If, in the end, it cannot be judged an unqualified artistic success, that is no disgrace, since Mr. Wiesel has set out with unwavering seriousness to confront themes which would tax the strength of the very greatest artists: Tolstoy’s “accursed questions,” the ultimate mysteries of human existence. What is remarkable is not that he should sometimes flounder in such rough seas, but that he keeps afloat at all.

His book is divided into four movements, or “prayers”—an ugly word in this context, since it is the nickname for a form of torture used during interrogation which involves keeping a recalcitrant prisoner on his feet for days on end. Michael, the luckless hero, has been picked up by the police after making a clandestine return to his home town somewhere behind the Iron Curtain: Szerencsevaros, which means “City of Luck.” A survivor of the Nazi camps, he has lived for years in the West, where he has gradually established himself as a journalist after years of poverty and loneliness in postwar Paris. But the urge to see his home again has proved overwhelming, even if he doesn’t know exactly what it is that he is looking for. Now he has to hold out for three days during interrogation, to give the friend who helped to smuggle him across the frontier time to realize what has happened and make his escape. So he stands facing a blank prison wall, trying to forget the excruciating pain in his legs by letting memories of his past life race through his mind.

An artificial device for framing a series of flashbacks, needless to say: In reality the thoughts of a man in such a wretched situation could hardly be as coherent and unbroken as they are shown to be here. But this isn’t a drawback in a book which is essentially not so much a novel as a moral fable, peopled by the saints and grotesques of folklore. Strange ghosts come thronging back from childhood: cabbalists, pariahs, madmen. Szerencsevaros is a haunted town; and Michael’s memories of Paris, too, are dominated by a revenant, a tormented boy who back in the concentration-camp had been the Piepel, the mascot of the Nazi guards. These episodes of fantasy are drawn with an assured and delicate touch, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of the sequences with which they alternate: recollections of meetings with Pedro, a corny international adventurer who is Michael’s guide, philosopher, and friend. The other characters are unearthly, but Pedro—pipe-smoking, quizzical, brimming with sententious wisdom—is simply implausible. The pity of this is that it does damage the book, since Pedro is intended to provide an essential link in the affirmation of faith with which the story closes.

The true strength of the book lies elsewhere. When he reaches home, Michael at last realizes what has impelled him to undertake his foolhardy mission. He needs to confront the Other, the indifferent spectator who stood at the window for day after day, watching impassively while the Jews of the town were herded into a courtyard for deportation. Only his head had been visible, “like a balloon—bald, flat nose, wide empty eyes.” And he turns out to be more than a conventional cold fish. He is literally inhuman, devoid of any feeling at all, a perfect and absolute blank. Perhaps he is intended to embody no more than ordinary callous indifference; but it is hard not to see him as a symbol of the God who doesn’t answer prayers, the God who permitted Auschwitz to happen. Mr. Wiesel’s hero has had a deeply religious upbringing; and in the best pages of this uneven book God’s absence is felt with an aching sadness, like the melancholy which used to descend on the pious in Szerencsevaros every Sabbath at twilight. They believed that with the coming of the Messiah the days of the week would dissolve away and only the Sabbath would remain. “That is why the rabbi’s chant is so sad, his voice broken. The Sabbath is slipping away, and that means that this week, too, the Messiah will not come.”

Despite the ghastly title, Death as a Way of Life is a tolerably serious piece of work, a sardonic study of political skulduggery in a run-down banana republic. It deals with the reign and downfall of a dictator called Boccanegra: a man of the people, but there the resemblance to his distinguished operatic namesake ends. Brutal, grasping and stupid, he is an absolute tyrant who holds court while emptying his bowels, after the fashion of Versailles. The corruption of his regime is exposed at two removes: the narrator has got hold of the memoirs of Boccanegra’s former secretary, a faithless protegé, but he himself is eventually implicated in the violence which he has spent most of the book piously deploring. Mr. Ayala’s ironies are generally rather obvious, which is perhaps inevitable when writing about a state of affairs where the castration of opponents is something like a regular feature of the political scene. He delineates the gross scandals and twittering scandalettes of a seedy despotism with care, and his book holds up as an intelligent documentary; but too many novelists have worked the same ground before. A respectable performance, si; a really compelling novel, non.

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