- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

Dennis Bock's first novel, The Ash Garden (Knopf, $23, 304 pages) opens on the bright morning of Aug. 6, 1945 as six-year old Emiko Amai and her little brother Mitsuo are playing by the river in Hiroshima. They recognize and watch the single plane "still very high in the air and a good distance away, trailing a white plume of smoke in its wake." Emiko "marveled as a dark round object, like a bloated body with dark skin, was released from the plane's belly."
"The Ash Garden" is the story of Emiko with her family destroyed and only half a face remaining after a blinding instant that changed everything and Anton Boell, the German scientist who worked with the Americans in perfecting the bomb, and Anton's wife, Sophie, a half-Jewish Austrian refugee. By a curious coincidence, the publication date of this fine novel about the physical and emotional devastation of a single act of war was September 11, 2001.
Emiko suffers years of excruciating pain, ridicule and ostracism by her classmates for her monstrous face. Anton is instrumental in her selection as one of the children to go to the United States for successful reconstructive plastic surgery.
Anton meets Sophie in Canada at a camp for refugees, where she has spent the war. They marry. He lives a life devoted to science and to proving the bomb was a necessary evil. She is loyal and lonely, refusing to leave Anton for her one chance at real happiness, and waits for his release from his philosophical dilemma considering the bomb that saved lives yet destroyed so much so horribly. As Sophie lies dying from lupus, Anton gently tends her ravaged skin as he was unable to do for Emiko.
Emiko has left Japan behind; Sophie never tries to find out what happened to her family in the war; Anton (who left Germany only because he did not agree with the scientific development of the bomb, not because of political disagreement) reluctantly faces the moral ramifications of his scientific decisions. All three have livedbarren, childless existences.
Mr. Bock's delicate, incisive handling of what could be a sentimental story starts in the silvery morning light of Emiko's Hiroshima and ends in the summer glow of Sophie's Canadian garden half a century later. Through numerous parallels (some a little obvious), the characters have found and recognized their relationships, grown to accept what life has thrust upon them and to cherish that which remains. The Ash Garden may be a desert, but it is nevertheless a garden where each spring flowers bloom with new promise.

At the end of World War I, four sailors from the German merchant marine ship, Yellow Sailor, find themselves shipwrecked in shallow waters in the North Sea. Soon, they are mired in a nightmare of desolation, poverty, greed, hunger and general ugliness. In his first novel, The Yellow Sailor (Overlook Press, $26.95, 220 pages), Steve Weiner has given literary life to the cynical, bitter post-World War I paintings of George Grosz.
As the four men young, handsome and very Germanic Nicholas Bremml, brothers Karl and Alois, and Jacek, the electrician drift apart and reconnect, the reader follows them into the dregs of North German towns where 12-year-old girls become prostitutes; men knife one another for a crust of bread; Jews live in ghettoes and are ridiculed and held in contempt; where there is nothing of beauty and no act of kindness to redeem the surreal ugliness of the journey.
Their travels criss-cross the ravaged landscape, sometimes encountering the wandering Julius Bernai, the wealthy homosexual owner of the Yellow Sailor.
A somber, black pall hangs over the characters and events of the novel, as the men seek love and hope. Nicholas falls in love with the prostitute Agatha; Julius Bernai with his doctor's fiancee while he is confined to an institution recovering from a nervous breakdown. A 14-year-old Polish boy kills the young girl he loves and sets forth on a macabre journey of his own.
Mr. Weiner's dialogue frequently is interspersed with words and phrases in languages other than English: Swedish, German, Low German, Dutch. Often written phonetically, almost always slightly inaccurately, the device is somewhat irritating since every phrase or sentence, even the most obvious, is then translated into English. Still, "The Yellow Sailor" is a gripping, hallucinatory voyage through several circles of a surreal Northern European hell where all hope has indeed been abandoned.

World War II is over and Anna welcomes her Greek-American husband Constantine (Kosta) home from the battles. Protected, relatively well-to-do, Anna and their two children and two servants have been waiting for this moment at Spatter Dock, Anna's family summer house on a New England lake.
Bianca VanOrden's Fire Music (Writer's Showcase, $32.95, 596 pages) is the story of two well-married people finding each other again after a dramatic separation. Slowly, as the weeks go by, Kosta tells Anna of his exploits, his wound, the death of his brother and of the mysterious Carl Springer and his beautiful wife, Monique. Springer has come to visit them at the lake and Anna takes an instant dislike to him.
The book's strength lies in Kosta's recounting of his wartime adventures, many of which are fascinating to the reader a half-century after the fact. One cannot but wish that Anna were less of a lightweight snob and a ninny and a more substantial character, but she serves as a ready listener to Kosta's war stories.

Richard Kalich's The Zoo (AmErica House, $19.95, 179 pages) is a not-so-subtle satire of an attempt by a Triumvirate of animals to turn the animal kingdom back to its true "animal nature" by erradicating first all creative creatures, then all thinking animals and finally just about all animals.
Clever Michael Ferret has the original idea and sets up Wise Old Owl as ruler/leader/savior/God, assisted by propaganda minister Sly Fox and Muerte Buzzard and his death squad, Muerte's Mercenaries ("MM"). "Remember the dinosaurs" (the assumption being that dinosaurs became extinct because "they thought and acted in ways contrary to animal nature") and "Ignorance is Bliss" become the rallying cries of the group.
Artists, thinkers, philosophers, scientists are rounded up and caged in a Zoo, built to keep them away from the society of animals. "Uprooted, alientated, estranged, split off from self, nature, and society, suffering from anomie, the incarnation of desolation and despair, an accidental, arbitrary being, the modern animal, i.e., the thinking animal, was the greatest danger to Animal World and indeed, to himself."
When zooed Sissie Canary goes on a hunger strike and dies because she is not allowed to sing, a revolution starts. Michael Ferret sees his chance to become top dog, so to speak, and switches sides. He goes to find Polly Parrot to serve as leader for the revolution.
Surprise. Polly sides with Wise Old Owl; the revolution is put down; Ferret is zooed but comes up with a clever plan to "sacrifice" animals weekly, and later to exterminate the "enemy" in a full-fledged war. The war against all animals climaxes when lemmings, trained as Suicide Mobiles, inspire animals to drown themselves willy nilly.
Ultimately 75% of all animals, birds, insects, fish are exterminated. When Ferret and the Triumvirate, now bored with nothing to do, attempt to start everything all over again, they find that creativity cannot be forced.
Mr. Kalich's ironic parable may be overly obvious, but his wit and sardonic satire are skillfully deployed. His penchant for using familiar acronyms for animal organizations "MM," the death squads, "FBI," Ferret's bureau of investigation, "CAA" Sly's talent agency or "S&W;" for Sly's business venture although hardly subtle, are amusing and well aimed. Like Swiftian satire, despite the humor, there is a chilling relevance to "The Zoo." One can but hope that the masses are not as mindless as all that.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.


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