- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2001

A snowy Thanksgiving gathering of mostly middle-aged friends is the setting for Nancy Huston's new novel, Dolce Agonia (Steerforth, $23, 228 pages). Like any good dinner party, the evening features the vitality of vying personalities, lively conversation, good food and lots of wine; unlike a real party, though, this one reveals the emotions behind the flushed faces and the thoughts underlying the witty repartee. And though the characters share a conventional high-brow agnosticism, every other chapter is narrated by "God." One by one, he reveals to us the fates he has arranged for each of these characters.
It "tickles" the omnipotent God of this fantasy theology to watch men and women "flail and flounder," always "hankering after meaning." This God has favorite moments in the history of mankind. "The Hundred Years' War, for example. The Death of Cleopatra. Thanksgiving dinner at Sean Farrell's, circa 2000 … There's no point looking for reasons … a multitude of minor coincidences and unexpected undercurrents in the conversation made this dinner party into a poem …"
The poem-party progresses from banter in the kitchen while Sean's guests tend the turkey and make cranberry sauce (Sean himself is a professor of poetry from Ireland; he doesn't cook), to the meal during which the 12 guests eat heartily and drink lots of good French wine, to the realization that snow has made the roads impassible so they must all spend the night.
Inner lives are revealed as these simple actions unfold. Charles, a poet and the only African American at the party, finds his mind full of his brutally bitter divorce while he discusses Walt Whitman and gangsta rap; cheerful Katie, the wife of Sean's friend and housepainter Leonid, can't help mentally reliving every moment of the day her son died; Chloe, the youngest woman at the table and the damaged daughter of hippies, reflects on "the monotonous alphabet of human perversity" she experienced as a child and hates the way Sean flirts with her.
The number of characters and the multiple layers of their thoughts, memories and conversation make this a challenging read. But Miss Huston, who lives in Paris and writes in both French and English, is an astute observer. These characters seem real, their conversations and thoughts ring true as do the author's and their simultaneous alienation from and longing for relationship with a deity.

The narrator of The Officers' Ward (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21, 136 pages), a slim book from France by Marc Dugain (and translated from the French by Howard Curtis), has no longing for God. He's a country boy who, despite his Jesuit education and pious mother, claims to believe only in the power of nature and his own "guiding star." As a young recruit in 1914, he feels invincible. But before he has even seen action at the front he is sent on a reconnaissance mission and severely wounded. "I felt as if an axe had embedded itself just under my nose. Then the light went out."
In this spare, highly evocative style, the narrator recounts his recovery from severe facial wounds and the friendship he forms during his long hospitalization with two similarly disfigured men. "A Jewish aviator, a deeply devout Breton aristocrat, and a secular Republican from the Dordogne," the men are drawn together not just by the humiliation of having lost their faces but by "a tacit decision to reject introspection and avoid thinking about the disaster of our existence, because that would only lead to bitterness, a bitterness made up in part of disenchantment and in party of a martyr's selfishness."
A great deal is packed into the 150 pages of this elegant book. One of the most striking scenes is the signing of the Armistice in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The three friends are among an invited delegation, placed where the German officers cannot avoid seeing them. "It struck me," the narrator writes, "that it must be a terrible thing not just to be wounded, as we were, but defeated too, like the Germans." The three are convinced that they have witnessed the end of the war to end all wars.
They go forward wishing "to live in the present as intensely as possible, and to be together as much as possible." But by the end of the book, the Germans are again in Paris; the three friends, like everyone else, "had turned a deaf ear to the sound of jackboots." Married and with children now, they flee to Brittany. The one who is Jewish and his family must be hidden until the Liberation.
But the detachment of these men "who feared nothing because they had nothing to lose" grants them a liberation beyond the political. Their freedom from preoccupation with self opens they way for them, not just to survive physically, but to find love and to experience something others actually envy them for true joy.

The personal and the political also mingle in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Knopf, $18, 197 pages), another short book from France where it has won several prizes. Dai Sijie, the author, has lived there since 1984 but he bases his first novel on his experience in China where he was born and where, between 1971 and 1974 he was "re-educated."
As our alliances shift, it is shocking to be reminded of the Cultural Revolution, the time in the late '60s when Chinese schools and universities were closed and an attempt was made to hasten the appearance of the "new Maoist man" by stamping out "bourgeois" education and countering it with the "re-education" of intellectuals in the countryside by workers and peasants. The novel, which is translated from the French by Ina Rilke, treats these horrors insightfully but with a light, imaginative touch.
Luo and his friend, the unnamed narrator, are two teenage boys banished to the countryside because their parents are "stinking scientific authorities," two doctors and one a dentist. The boys haven't actually had much in the way of education; schools were closed from the time they were 12 until they turned 14 and then the only courses they could take were "the basics of industry and agriculture." Of literature they know nothing. "By the time we had finally learnt to read properly," the narrator remembers, "there had been nothing left for us to read. For years the 'Western Literature' sections of the bookshops were devoted to the complete works of the Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha …"
Yet as they spend days working in mines and carrying buckets of excrement out of their village the two boys find comfort in stories. They start by retelling movies they have seen and the villagers who hear them are enthralled, especially a beautiful young seamstress from a neighboring town. Then the boys discover a hidden suitcase full of books, novels by Honore de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas and Gustave Flaubert translated into Chinese. As they retell "Cousin Pons" and "The Count of Monte Cristo", their stories become even more seductive. The seamstress is completely enchanted as is Luo with her.
The tone throughout this small book is breezy and amusing but the ending is a sobering surprise, a reminder that the freedom of thought and imagination so intrinsic to artistic expression is also the freedom to want comfort and frivolous mediocrity.
It may remind some of images from Berlin in November, 1989, or Kabul in 2001 when the first stop for newly free people was not necessarily the library, the church or the opera house. It was just as likely to be the shopping mall, the street vendor of pop CDs or the beauty parlor.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.


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