- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

International political intrigue, terrorism and violence provide the backdrop for two starkly different novels. In AVeryPrivateGentleman (Thomas Dunne, $23.95, 288 pages), British author Martin Booth imagines a sinister master craftsman living anonymously in the hills of northern Italy while providing customized firearms to assassins whose motives and targets he neither knows nor cares to question. TheLastNightofaDamnedSoul (Grove, $24, 272 pages, translated from the French by Janice and Daniel Gross) by Algerian playwright Slimane Benaissa is, on the other hand, a story of white-hot political and religious passion.

Mr. Booth’s narrator contributes to violence but claims complete detachment from ideals, Mr. Benaissa’s protagonist is drawn towards the idea of union with God through violence and death. Mr. Booth’s “Very Private Gentleman” says of himself that “in collaboration with my client, I am the greatest impresario on earth, the Barnum of bullets, the Andrew Lloyd Webber of assassination, the D’Oyly Carte of death.” To his neighbors he is “Signor Farfalla” (Mister Butterfly), a solitary artist who goes off into the hills to draw and paint.

He lives quietly, taking care to avoid human entanglements and to draw no attention to hiimself. As the book opens, he is embarking on what he thinks will be the final assignment of his career, preparation of a weapon designed to kill “perhaps Arafat or Sharon” or the “British Prime Minister … she is sufficiently hated to be a hit.”

As his task nears completion, sipping Armagnac with the town priest or having sex with a young prostitute who says she loves him, he allows himself to imagine the possibility of a more normal future. He is vaguely tempted to tell Father Benedetto his secrets; he can almost imagine sharing a life with Clara.

But the subject here is not, ultimately, Signor Farfalla’s heart. This is a mystery and Martin Booth, the author of 10 novels and much non-fiction including the definitive biography of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, is a master stylist, brilliant not just at describing the rich human and natural landscape of northern Italy but also at creating sinister, suspenseful moods.

When Signor Farfalla becomes aware of a foreign presence in the town, a man he calls the “shadow-dweller” who observes and follows him, his evasions become ever more imaginative and elaborate. They, and the book’s surprising, violent ending, are described in satisfying, vividly cinematic detail.

The author of “The Last Night of a Damned Soul” makes it clear in his Foreword that his book is NOT simply a thriller. Drawing a connection with Victor Hugo’s “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch,” Slimane Benaissa states that “history forces me to speak out responsibly against certain unjust, inadmissible, and inconceivable deaths. My response as a Muslim is dictated by my personal experience with religious extremism… .” There is a definite point of view here.

Raouf, a successful young man who identifies more with the America of his childhood than the Lebanese heritage of his parents, is reeling from his father’s untimely death when Athman, a Palestinian colleague at his Silicon Valley job, takes him under his wing, sharing his commute to and from work and inviting him to religious celebrations at the home of a wealthy Saudi named Jamal, who it later emerges owns the company for which they both work.

Raouf is flattered by the attention, attracted by the sense of belonging he has with his new friends and seduced by offers of financial gain. He’s also disturbed when Athman insists he give up not just his dog, (“In the eyes of Islam, dogs are the dirtiest of animals…what’s worse, he’s black. The Prophet said, “A black dog is a shaytan [devil]” …) but later that he give up his American girlfriend and finally, even contact with his mother. Then Athman reveals that Raouf must go into seclusion with Jamal for a couple of months; he is being considered for something very special.

Despite its imperfections as fiction, this is a powerful, thought-provoking book. “The Last Night of a Damned Soul” is weighed down by dialogue that creaks with the need to impart information rather than flowing like real conversation, with characters that never quite become real and with many long sermons quoted in their entirety.

But while these lengthy passages slow down the book’s action, they are also at the heart of the work. Again and again, the guides who are teaching Raouf preach to him justifying suicide and praising death. “In Islam death is a great voyage of the soul, and a dream is the little voyage of the soul,” they tell him. “If the Koran speaks so much about death, it’s because our relationship with God is established through death.”

The guide quotes a sheikh who said “I love death, for I passionately want to meet my Lord.” Raouf’s mother gives voice to Slimane Benaissa’s own rejection of this perspective, affirming faith in life and in the God of her fathers. By then, though, it is too late for Raouf.

Chico Buarque’s Budapest (Grove, $19.95, 183 pages, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin)is a book of a totally different order from either of the above, a funny, stream of consciousness romp, a witty take on language and place, modern travel and age-old love. One of the most popular singer-songwriters in his native Brazil, Buarque has a sense of sound and flow beautifully captured by his translator Alison Entrekin. He also has a wild imagination and an acute sense of the ridiculous.

The narrator of “Budapest” is Jose Costas, like Buarque himself, a man intoxicated with language. He is a ghostwriter traveling from Istanbul home to Rio de Janeiro when a glitch in his travel plans lands him for a night in Budapest.

There, exhausted and disoriented, he falls in love not with the place but with the Hungarian language itself. On a subsequent visit he hires the lovely but demanding Kriska to teach him to speak. To the ups and downs of a complex romantic encounter, add the fact that the lovers literally don’t speak the same language and you have an idea (albeit incomplete) of the story.

But the emphasis is less in what happens than in the telling itself. Here is Jose trying to tell Kriska he has to leave. “I finally made myself understood, as Kriska went quiet for a good few minutes. And suddenly she let forth a torrent of difficult words, and I’m not sure if she was expelling me from the room or asking for mercy, if she was begging me for a hot drink, accusing me of having cast a spell on her, stolen some object, a gold watch perhaps, watch? Is there watch thy evident, I retorted, bewildered, pointing at the piece of junk on her wrist, but that wasn’t it, and Kriska, already upset because of the farewell, became exasperated by my ignorance.”

And here he is finding he may return to Budapest. “Via Milan, said the Consul, I could leave that very night. I said I would see, I had a few things to tend to in Rio, pending affairs; I asked if the ticket was first class, but my head was already lifting off, my thoughts came in verses.” And here Jose (also called Kosta) bemoans his imperfect accent ” … for one who has adopted a foreign tongue as if hand-picking his own mother, for one who had sought out and loved every last one of its words, the persistence of an accent was an unfair punishment. Sometimes I would be in bed with Kriska, praising her thick eyebrows or her naked belly, and suddenly it was as if I had tickled her: Stop, Kosta, for the love of God, stop, and she would double up with laughter. Where did I go wrong, what consonant. Stop, stop, Kosta, I beg you … ”

That the book jacket bears the word “Budapest” set over a misty aerial photo of Rio de Janeiro aptly captures the exotic flavor and playful mood of this delightful book.

Stephanie Deutsche is a writer and critic in Washington.

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