- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

Gustaw Herling (1919-2000) is widely considered one of the most gifted Polish writers of the last century. He is best known for his memoir “A World Apart,” an account of the two years he spent as a prisoner in a Stalinist gulag during World War II. Herling eventually settled in Naples, and that city serves as the backdrop to several stories in his masterful last book, The Noonday Cemetery and Other Stories (New Directions, $25.95, 281 pages; translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston).

Before his death, the author hand-picked these 15 stories as the best representation of his later work. They are intoxicating stories, appealing equally to the intellect, the emotions and the senses. Each considers a metaphysical puzzle from a perspective that is distinctly European.

Herling achieves a collage effect in the volume, enhancing his narrative with quotations from other documents — newspaper articles, “official” reports, and so forth. He also includes his own journal entries; reading these, we feel that he has taken us into his confidence. Ever enigmatic, Herling continually blurs the fine line between fiction and reality — some of the characters and events described here are fictional, while others are derived from the author’s life. Herling’s unadorned prose can have a startling power, as in the following passage from the story “Ashes”:

“Two days a week a boat leaves Naples in the early evening. Night falls soon after Capri is rounded. For a moment the red tail of sunset still drags along the furrow of the sea, then it is swallowed up by a pure and absolute blackness.”

In “The Height of Summer,” the author uses the peculiar spike in suicides that occurs in Rome every year on the night of August 15 as an invitation to ask why people take their own lives.

“One does not have to be a philosopher in order to think and feel this way, at the lowest level of existence. And it occurred to me then that that was exactly what was happening to certain people on the night of the height of summer, when the ‘muteness of the universe’ strikes and the veil concealing God is at its most opaque, prompting a terrifying fear that He may not be there at all.”

Herling believed that literature was an experience, and with “The Noonday Cemetery,” he makes it an unforgettable one.

D.R. MacDonald’s stories spring from a relatively unknown North American migration, when rugged seamen from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, journeyed to Ohio and found work on the ore freighters plying the Great Lakes. All the Men Are Sleeping (Counterpoint, $14, 304 pages) is a vivid, affectionate elegy to a special place and people. It’s the second collection of short fiction by Mr. MacDonald, a Stanford University professor and winner of several literary awards.

Hard-working, often hard-drinking, reserved but overly trusting, Mr. MacDonald’s Cape Bretoners are vital, deeply passionate characters. Traces of their ancestral Gaelic culture can be detected in their speech and thoughts. Many suffer from the ache of displacement — we meet sons living far away from their islander parents, and parents who abandoned the island in search of a better life. In “Ideas of North,” a baby boomer who grew up in Ohio and moved to Silicon Valley loses his widowed father and more.

“At home there will be no coronach, no pipes, no women wailing the grief men clamp inside themselves. Nothing of his father’s Cape Breton will be heard in the [funeral] service, none of its rhythms, its voices, its stern theology he was too good-natured to observe. The minister is young and knows nothing of the island that made this man, nothing of its qualities or its life.”

Cape Breton itself is one of the principal characters in the volume. Its sheer mountains and stormy ocean dominate the lives of its inhabitants, so much so that readers from less extreme climes may not fathom the islanders’ attachment to their home. But through Mr. MacDonald’s stories we come to see the beauty and sense of mastery such a place offers to those who can survive in it. In “The Flowers of Bermuda,” a distraught man takes his lobster boat out into a storm, observing with a keen eye: “Caoir gheal, his grandfather called waves like these. A bright flaming of white. The sea had turned darker than the sky, and over the land the boat was swinging toward, clouds lay heavy and thick, eased along like stones, dark as dolmens.”

Take figures from Greek mythology and transport them to the modern world — this is the tantalizing premise of Morpheus (Toby Press, $12.95, 101 pages), a seven-story collection by Katharina Hacker (translated from the German by Helen Atkins). The author, a young German novelist, deserves credit for her inventiveness, but the resulting stories are less than satisfying. The author reuses the same words and images too often, and her prose style verges on the melodramatic. However, it’s possible that enthusiasts of classical mythology will find merit in “Morpheus” that this reviewer missed.

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer.

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