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Prose Microreviews, December/Janury 1996-97

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The Togakushi Legend Murders Yasuo Uchida, translated by David J. Selis The plot of this meticulously contructed mystery, which involves the murder of several political and business big shots in Nagano Prefecture, "the Japanese Alps," appears to trace back to obscure events during the murky final months of World War II--and from there to the mists of an ancient local legend about a demoness and a Genji-era general. At the narrative level, the book works perfectly: there are abundant venal motives for each murder and enough plausible suspects to keep things interesting; all the necessary clues have, one must admit at the end, been sown fair and square; and the classic teaming of veteran detective and youthful assistant makes the airing of successive hypotheses about the case unintrusive. One of the best mysteries I've read in a long time. --Rosemary Pepper Remembering Anna O.: A Century of Mystification Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen In 1881, Freud's friend and fellow physician Josef Breuer experienced groundbreaking success in talking the patient "Anna O." through strange symptoms: partial paralysis, inability to drink water, compulsion to speak only languages foreign to her. But Breuer balked when Anna began hallucinating that she was having his baby, and Freud stepped in to complete her treatment--hailed ever since as the origin of psychoanalysis. Remembering Anna O., Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, a literature professor at the University of Washington, reexamines the famous case and finds Freud and Breuer's reportage skewed--enough so, he believes, to debunk psychoanalytic method overall. But the fudgings he cites--among them Freud's allegations that Breuer prudishly fled Anna's sexuality "in a cold sweat" to allay a suicidal wife--are insufficient to fulfill the claim. While Borch-Jacobsen's portrait of a gossippy, spiteful, fame-driven Freud is fascinating, ungrounded speculation (Anna might have seen circus hypnotism and been acting it out on Freud's couch, the author suggests with little evidence) and lawyerly sarcasm (Freud's is "a lovely story . . . but it simply isn't true") lend his expose a lurid air of tabloid promise incommensurate with what little news it delivers. --Shelley Salamensky Veronica Nicholas Christopher Nicholas Christopher's second novel expands on themes explored in his poem "5," weaving a fascination with mysticism into a modern-day fantasy. The tale is set in wintry Greenwich Village where Leo, a photographer, meets Veronica at "an improbable point where Waverly Place intersects Waverly Place." Veronica is the daughter of a powerful magician who, ten years earlier, while performing a trick with time-travel, disappeared into the fourth dimension. Leo falls in love with Veronica, and soon after finds himself embroiled in a scheme to return her father to the present--a scheme involving, among other things, a constellation (Leo, of course), time travel (back to the days of Sir Walter Raleigh), and the Empire State Building (standing in for the Great Pyramids as the focal point of the world's energies). With its recurring symbols, themes of doubleness, Eastern mysticism, and self-exploration, Veronica has much the same effect as a good magician's trick: we know it's all smoke and mirrors, but, in the end, don't really mind being fooled. --Peter McCarthy From Three Worlds Edited by Ed Hogan, with Askold Melnyczuk, Michael Naydan, Mykola Riabchuk & Oksana Zabuzhko This pioneering anthology offers a splendid introduction to contemporary Ukrainian literature as represented by fifteen of the most promising writers to emerge after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's attainment of independence. Among the poets, two female voices are especially impressive. Oksana Zabuzhko, perhaps the most controversial figure in Ukrainian literature today, displays a mesmerizing blend of reckless bravado and intellectual pungency in "Klytemnestra," "Letter from the Summer House," and "On the Way to Hell." Natalka Bilotserkivets captivates with her intimate and compassionate visions in the poems "A Hundred Years of Youth" and "The Picasso Elegy." The prose ranges from Valery Shevchuk's novella about an urbanized village woman to the traumatic adventures of a retired Afghanistan veteran in a story by Yury Andrukhovych (the premier novelist in Ukraine); from the playful miniatures of Volodymyr Dibrova to the black humor of "Max and I," Yury Vynnychuk's violent parody of Soviet cultural stereotypes. The haunting "Five Loaves and Two Fishes" by Yevhen Pashkovsky follows a survivor's dream-like flow of memories of collectivization and famine, saturated with horrid detail yet infused with spiritual elevation. With an insightful introduction by the feminist critic and scholar Solomea Pavlychko, From Three Worlds provides a fresh perspective on one of the most interesting literary developments in the post-Soviet world. --Taras Koznarsky Volcano and Miracle Gustaw Herling After fighting in World War II and serving time in a Soviet camp, the Polish writer Gustaw Herling moved to Naples, where he founded the influential emigre journal Kultura. Volcano and Miracle excerpts prose musings and fictional exercises that have appeared there over many years as Herling's "Journal Written at Night." For Herling, the journal is not a place for self-revelation, but rather one in which to consider thoughts of a political and philosophical nature. They are invariably big thoughts--about totalitarianism, alienation, and the Nobel Prize--while his stories are, utterly unsurprisingly, all about suffering and the silence of God. Though Herling's pages are occasionally enlivened by curious lore--he tells us, for example, that Spinoza commissioned a portrait of himself in the guise of the Neapolitan rebel Masaniello--mostly they parade bombastic commonplaces: "I admire artists for whom art is a ceaseless struggle to reach the other shore. Firmly rooted in reality and in nature, they stubbornly strain toward something that is felt but not known." This book is best regarded as a prize specimen of cold war intellectual kitsch. --Edwin Frank Brand Henrik Ibsen, a version for the stage by Geoffrey Hill First produced and published in England in 1978, the great British poet Geoffrey Hill's powerful poetic "version for the stage" of Ibsen's early verse drama Brand is now available, slightly revised, in the United States. Brand, a country pastor who combines a kind of Emersonian self-absorption with the tormented and uncompromising religious sensibility of Simone Weil, believes that faith in God is nothing if it is not the demand for us to be as God; to that conviction, he progressively sacrifices mother, child, wife, parishioners, and ultimately himself. Poised between hideous self-parody and selfless sublimity, Brand is shown by Ibsen to be as terrible in his judgments as he is unmistakably beyond the judgment of the more accomodating characters around him. In light of Brand such celebrated later works as A Doll's House seem less dramas of principle colliding with the world than tragedies of a world in which there is no principle of reconciliation, so that both individual and group stand self-condemned. Brand itself ends with the hero crushed under an avalanche. "What do we die to prove?" he demands. A voice answers, "He is the God of Love." --Edwin Frank The Fate of a Gesture Carter Ratcliffe Carter Ratcliffe has written something like a comprehensive history of postwar American art for something like a popular audience, and his book suffers a bit from its uncertainty of purpose. The tone veers from textbook exposition to artworld dish, while Ratcliffe's wide range of reference demands many more illustrations than the publisher has provided. Even so, The Fate of a Gesture has much to recommend it. Ratcliffe eschews the standard academic approaches to art--formal analysis and social history--and tries instead to characterize American art, as he sees it developing out of Pollock's drip paintings, in terms of an aesthetic of non-closure based on an idea of the infinite as opposed to the European cultivation of compositional completeness. As criticism, this is perhaps too broad to prove useful, and yet the particularity and concision with which Ratcliffe sketches the lives and characters of such figures as Pollock, Newman, de Kooning, Still, and Warhol, together with his gift for aphorism--he remarks of the entropy-obssessed earth artist Robert Smithson that "nothing but the idea of universal death was entirely alive for him"--make this a thoughtful and entertaining book. --Edwin Frank Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin, The Father of Hate Radio Donald Warren From 1926 until the start of World War II, Father Charles Coughlin pioneered the use of radio as a political tool, indulging in the right-wing populism that now dominates the medium. Coughlin portrayed himself week after week to millions of listeners as an obedient servant of the church and a righteous defender of the common man. At the same time, the priest was an adulterer, embezzler, red-baiter, anti-Semite, and anti-government conspiracist who had a special altar installed in one of his homes so he could celebrate mass when he was too drunk to make it to church. In this meticulously researched biography, Donald Warren concentrates on Coughlin's career as a broadcaster and editor, documenting his rhetorical and financial debt to Nazi Germany. However in passing quickly over Coughlin's early years--only three pages are devoted to his life before ordination--Warren fails to provide insights into the origin of his ultimately self-destructive hatred of Jews. Similarly, the short shrift given Coughlin's later years leaves open the greatest mystery of this story: why this most reckless and impulsive of public figures submitted when his church superiors finally silenced him in 1942. --Jonathan Gill Corruption Tahar Ben Jelloun A frustrated Moroccan engineer wrestles with poverty and his sense of honor while everyone around him gets rich from bribery. Gradually caving in to the demands of his family and co-workers, Mourad accepts a secret "commission" and suddenly finds himself sucked into a corrupt system too powerful to resist. In a voice reminiscent of Camus, Jelloun's narrative mirrors the lucidity of Mourad's mind as he grapples with the ethical issues of his predicament--namely, whether there is any point in clinging stubbornly to his integrity while everyone else is thriving happily on corruption. The book is a powerful portrayal of one man's feeble struggle against the erosion of morality. --Virginia Nolan

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review



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