- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

The extraordinary events and lingering aftermath of World War II are the inspiration for and context of three European novels, two of them recent publications and one newly available in English. A fourth is contemporary and very American.
In The Siege (Grove/Atlantic, $24, 291 pages), English novelist Helen Dunmore evokes the ghastly winter of 1941 in the city that was then Leningrad. Against the ominous mood of spring and summer, she introduces her characters Anna, a conscientious, artistically inclined young woman; Kolya, the five-year-old brother she has raised since their mother died in childbirth; Michail, their ineffectual, literary father; and Marina Petrovna, the fading actress who loves Michail.
The Germans attack. Anna and her father volunteer, she, briefly, to dig defense trenches, he to fight. Michail is wounded and Andrei, a young medical student, helps him, gets to know Anna and falls in love with her. Winter brings freezing temperatures and relentless snow. Fuel and food virtually disappear.
Despite the gruesome circumstances the author describes, "The Siege" is not a dreary book. Nor is it full of false uplift. Rather, like Anna maintaining a cheery facade and structured days so her brother won't become demoralized, it moves along, shifting among comforting memory, present agony, tentative thoughts of future possibility and the constant interplay between the extraordinary and the mundane. When Anna makes one last dash on her bicycle out to the family dacha to retrieve onions, potatoes and turnips from their garden there, she risks running afoul of city regulations.
Striving for a "submissive, citizenly look … meek, but not so meek that anyone will be tempted to stamp on you …" she bribes the sentry with part of her haul. She is heading home, exhausted and scared, when Andrei shows up. "It would be now that he comes, when she's tired and sweaty, dressed in a cut-down pair of her father's old trousers, and the boots which are two sizes too big … 'My feet aren't really this big,' she finds herself saying …"
Flirting in the midst of terror, quoting Pushkin with her father, dragging a sled for hours through the snow in search of firewood, Anna is a true Russian heroine and this a satisfying book about that very Russian but universal subject, survival.

The war is over in veteran French novelist Pierre Magnan's new novel, Innocence (Harvill Press, $15.99, 246 pages), translated from the French by Patricia Clancy, but, as the narrator notes early on, "the winds of war were still blowing around us." The scene is Provence where the narrator, a desperately poor boy of 15, witnesses a murder. The victim is Captain Petrocles, a hero of the Resistance. Madame Henri, the town's most prominent citizen, also is revered for her wartime work. "She had sung the 'Marseillaise' with her sister behind bars in Saint Vincent les Forts, where she had been imprisoned awaiting deportation and where her sister died."
But the war is a less important subject here than the sexual tension that surrounds the mysterious Madame Henri and which rapidly becomes the obsession of the narrator. In a brief note at the beginning of the book, Mr. Magnon writes that he "has given a lot of thought as to whether the erotic scenes that appear towards the end of the novel are justified. He knows they may alienate a section of his readers, but … it was impossible to bring the episode to a conclusion by any other means that eroticism."
The erotic is certainly an essential element of this story; but this would be understood without the repetitious, graphic, sexual passages with which it concludes. As the author seems to have feared, these seem crude and gratuitous.

The Catbird Press, of North Haven, Connecticut, devotes its Garrigue Books imprint to Czech literature in translation. Living Parallel by Alexandr Kliment (Catbird Press, a Garrigue Book, $21, 238 pages) is the 14th such book published since 1987 and its translator, Robert Wechsler, is Catbird's Czech and German literature editor. Mr. Kliment, part of the literary generation that includes Milan Kundera, Joseph Skvorecky and Vaclav Havel, was banned from publishing for a time after the Soviet occupation of 1968. This book, published in Czech in 1977, is his first appearance in English.
Mikulas Svoboda (whose surname, common in Czech, means "freedom") is a 40-year-old architect contemplating a radical change in his life. The woman he loves, Olga, an artist, has decided to leave Prague and emigrate to Paris. Frustrated with the dreary blocs of cheap apartments he must design for his country's Soviet inspired, planned economy and newly divorced from his wife, Jarmila, Mikulas plans to go with her. The book is his extended meditation on that decision and on the private "parallel existence" that thus far has allowed him to keep his sanity in a hostile political environment.
Mikulas' wife accuses him of being "in love with your permanent discontent" but, in the end, it is less his mindset than his native countryside that he finds himself unable to forsake. Rather like a late night conversation in a smoke-filled bar, "Living Parallel" is a dreamy rumination on memory, faith and aesthetics that is sometimes hard to follow but is often beautiful as the author wrestles with serious ideas.

A very different kind of book is The Fall of Rome (Scribner, $23, 224 pages) by Martha Southgate. This is a plot driven page turner told alternately from the points of view of its three main characters. The first is Jerome Washington, the only classics teacher at a prestigious private prep school. He also identifies himself as the only "Negro" on the faculty ("I am aware that Negro is no longer the fashionable term," he writes. "It is, however, how I prefer to think of myself.") Jerome loves teaching for its "constant promise of renewal" and Latin for "the clarity of thought that produced it and the glory of the civilization that once used it."
Jerome has replaced painful memories of his childhood as a Georgia sharecropper's son with single-minded belief in the value of hard work and faith in the ultimate rewards of adherence to the rules.
The opening of a school year brings two new faces to the school Jana Hansen, a lively, sympathetic, white English teacher who had taught in inner city high schools, and Rashid Bryson, an angry scholarship student from Brooklyn. Jerome and Jana both find themselves involved with Rashid, their prejudices suggesting very different ways of relating to him. And a mutual, powerful attraction draws together the two lonely, middle-aged teachers.
This is a fast paced story dealing with potentially explosive issues. It is somewhat marred by cliche-ridden, inelegant language (too many voices are described as "ragged"; Jerome remembers knowing his youthful girlfriend's body "better than I knew my own") but that is a quibble. A more basic reservation is that this book's appealing characters are stuck in the points of view they were created to represent. If the subject here were character, Jerome and Jana might learn from each other. Jerome might admit his hurt and his fears, Jana might become more open to his point of view.
Comparing experiences and attitudes, each of them might be enriched and grow. But the subject is race. Here, sadly, as often in life, the issue is too hot to handle. Differing attitudes are defining. They are not explored, much less comprehended.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.


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