- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

Pawel Kohoutek, doctor of veterinary medicine, is a feckless womanizer. He doesn't dislike his wife with whom he lives, together with his gloomy child, his half-crazy mother and various other eccentric family members and equally odd lodgers; he just can't resist attractive women.
His Current Woman (Hydra Books, $15.95, 128 pages), by Polish author Jerzy Pilch, begins with Pawel looking out the window one November day in 1990 and seeing his current mistress "her divine skull … covered with a funky little hat, while the colossal suitcase she was dragging behind her left a dark trail of final defeat in the pale November grass."
The "current woman," as she is called throughout this delightful, quirky short novel, has come to stay. After all, Pawel promised her a life with him and since he wasn't making it happen, she took matters into her own hands.
Pawel's attempts to hide his current woman from his family, putting her up in the barn and sneaking food and drink out to her, his ancient grandmother's discovery of the guest, the current woman's infiltration into Pawel's family and ultimately the life of his village, are woven into a satiric web of high comedy. "How is it possible that everyone except me knows everything about me?" muses Pawel, "[w]hy is it that I keep asking questions and find answers to hardly any of them, while the rest of humanity, with my relatives and current women in the fore, knows the answers to every asked and unasked question?"
Despite confiding in his mentor and tutor Dr. Oyermah (who has some unresolved stories of his own), Pawel never does successfully resolve his problems.
The translation from the Polish by Bill Johnston, catches the ironic, offbeat tone of Mr. Pilch's novel perfectly. "His Current Woman" is a glimpse into a fragmented world, a mixture of the old fashioned and the contemporary, told in a highly original voice.

Marie Antoinette Antonia was a slip of a girl, only 15 years old, when she set off from her native Vienna to Paris to marry the dauphin of France. In her delicious new novel entitled Versailles (Houghton Mifflin, $21, 206 pages), Kathryn Davis tells the story of her subject's years as a bride with an unconsummated marriage, her children, her flirtations, her loneliness and her high good humor from Marie Antoinette's point of view. The result is an enchanting, beautifully written novel, filled with originality and details about the intimate life of the last queen of France.
The novel is interspersed with wry playlets bearing on the past or present action. (According to Ms. Davis, it was Laclos de Choderlos, not Marie Antoinette, who said "If the canaille can't have any bread, let them eat straw."
The palace built by Louis XIV was a place of intrigue. When the lithe and pretty Austrian princess arrived, she was despised for being who she was. In a world of giant hairdos and court intrigues, she bore four children, two of whom died. Her daughter, nicknamed La Serieuse, the Serious One, was a sullen girl, much like her father, who outlived her parents and died an old lady. The dauphin also outlived his ill-fated parents and was briefly king of France. Always fond of her mild, low-key husband, Marie Antoinette found love in the dark eyes of Axel Fersen, a handsome Swedish count.
As she sits, a prisoner awaiting her fate, the queen remembers she "used to own two copper bathtubs, one for washing, one for rinsing. I used to sleep on six mattresses. My little boy would run in to wake me, laughing; my daughter would look up from her breviary and blink at how bright the day had grown. I used to be in love. I used to be married to a king. In my bedroom at the Petiit Trianon there were three different shades of gold leaf on the ceiling."
"Versailles" is more than a witty account of a pretty princess' life as queen of France; it is filled with thought-provoking ideas and musings on the human condition, and the heart and soul; on treachery and intrigue, honor and faithfulness.

It is impossible to tell how much of the mesmerizing The Tapestries (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99, 320 pages), Kien Nguyen's first novel, is true. The story is based on the extraordinary life of the author's grandfather, Dan, a skilled embroiderer in the court of the last king of Vietnam at the beginning of the 20th century.
As the novel begins, Dan is seven years old and about to be married to Ven, a woman 20 years older than he. Dan's father, a rich fisherman, is cheated of his wealth, betrayed and beheaded by Taon, a cruel and avaricious mayor. To hide the now penniless child in plain sight and to save his life, Ven sells him to the Taon family where he becomes the personal slave of Taon's pretty granddaughter, Tai May. As they grow to adulthood, the two fall in love.
The story is like a medieval parable, a tale of love and honor, of horrors and cruelty beyond description, of magic and mystery, of talismen and treasure maps. And while there are no dragons and demons, Mr. Nguyen's thrilling storytelling leaves the impression that the supernatural does indeed exist, whether in the form of human dementia or the hostilities of nature itself.
"The Tapestries" is a fascinating, complicated story, filled with colorful characters. Dan and his lovely lady love Tai May float through the difficulties they confront with fairy-tale grace and beauty; Ven, who finds love with a most unlikely suitor, pays for her devotion to Dan with unimaginable suffering. There is a beautiful young wife turned prostitute, a faithful eunuch, a brave lady-in-waiting to the queen sent to die without food and water in the traditional whitewashed cell.
There are also hangings, beheadings, torture, storms and fires "the flames multiplied, howing like a typhoon" balanced by exquisite descriptions of the natural world, such as "the spectacular green hills, the massive orange sun, the traces of magenta in the sleepy clouds" and the sight of "[t]he city … soaked in a faint purple shadow like the inside of a dense mosquito net."
"The Tapestries" is written with elegance and style. It's a tour de force for Kien Nguyen to have used a classic fairy-tale genre about an ancient way of life to depict a contemporary love story.

Germaine Shames explains in the acknowledgments at the end of her haunting novel Between Two Deserts (MacAdam/Cage, $24, 133 pages) that she "went to Jerusalem a journalist and came back a novelist. Sometime between the stabbings of old people on Jaffa Road and the demise of the militant rabbi, Meir Kahane, [she] cut [her] press card to shreds with a pair of cuticle scissors."
The deserts of the title are severalfold: There is the literal desert in Israel and in Palestine; there is the desert created in the two parts of Jerusalem by the warring Israelis and Palestinians; there is the desert of the soul created on both sides by the killing and deprivation; and there are the deserts in the lives of the characters in this short, touching novel, be they Israelis, Palestinians or outsiders to the conflict. The novel consists of several stories of people whose lives are not connected except through a central character, Eve Cavell, an American Jewish girl who has come to Jerusalem to fulfill her dying grandfather's wish.
Eve lives in the Arab section of Jerusalem; she is not involved in the strife and seeks to understand both sides. She is vulnerable and elusive. The handsome young Palestinian, Salim, has a passionate affair with her, but drops her to move to the safety of an undesirable marriage with a cousin in Jordan. Jacob leaves his wife Leah because he is enchanted by a poem Eve recites when she is brought to Jacob and Leah's apartment by an old friend, Mozes Koenig, who adores Eve and has become her protector.
Jacob and Leah's son, Amnon, who works for the Israeli secret service, is equally taken with the young woman. Ironically, her file turns up on his desk because she has befriended Salim's aunt who runs an orphanage which serves as a front for more dangerous dealings. When Mozes dies, it is Eve who comforts his estranged son after the funeral. There is no resolution to the story, as there is none to the conflict. It continues.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.



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