- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

Amin Jaafari is an Arab surgeon, an Israeli citizen living in Tel Aviv. He is successful, wealthy, assimilated, married to Sihem, a beautiful loving wife. In the course of his work, he saves the lives of people who have been injured in suicide bombings. One night, after an attack that has killed a group of children celebrating a birthday, his wife is among the dead; he is told that she was the bomber.

Jaafari’s disbelief, his interrogation by the police, his humiliation and physical abuse at the hands of his neighbors, and his gradual discovery of the truth and his subsequent descent into rage, despair and self-pity is the plot of The Attack (Nan A. Talese, $18.95, 257 pages) the new novel by Yasmina Khadra, author of “The Swallows of Kabul.”

Yasmina Khadra’s real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul. He is a former Algerian army officer who won a French literary prize in the late 1980s, a prize that bought his writing to the attention of the Algerian army officials. When he was ordered to submit any future books to the army censors prior to publication, he chose to write under a pseudonym. He now lives in France and has revealed his true identity.

As Jaafari attempts to understand his wife’s act, to balance the motivation of desperate people deprived of their homeland against his own belief in healing and peaceful accommodation, the reader is drawn into the conflict. Slowly, as disbelief becomes certainty, Jaafari is overcome by the possibility that his wife may have betrayed him physically as well as morally. That she has made a mockery of their entire married life seems to shock him less.

Although the translation of the dialogue from the French by John Cullen is awkward at times, and the conclusion (which is also the beginning) is too facile, “The Attack” is a riveting and exciting novel. It’s stunningly graphic in its depiction of the horrors of the bloody confrontation, of the brutality inherent in the sacrifices made for “the cause.”

Nevertheless, while the misery and frustration of the Arab population may be understandable, the suggested moral equivalence that drives suicide bombers to take the lives of children is troublesome. The Israelis react — even when they overreact — while the Arabs act. The end cannot ever justify such means.

Sylvia Bonucci’s short novel, Voices From a Time (Steerforth Press, $12.95, 192 pages) is a sort of memoir, a novel based on the author’s real family. It’s the story of beautiful, frivolous Gemma Levi, her adoring older husband, Sandrin, her children — Dolly, Marcello and Titti — and her lover and second husband, Castaldi. Dolly, Gemma and Titti tell the story of the others, each in the first person. Through their accounts, life in Trieste from the beginning of the 20th century through the days of fascism and World War II comes alive. It is the insights of these three that give the reader a picture of the family relationships.

“Voices from a Time” is not a political novel; rather, it is the story of a family alienated from one another and sometimes from the real world. Dolly is spoiled and misunderstood; Marcello, mentally challenged, a morphine addict, a patient of Dr. Freud and, ultimately, a suicide, as is his father, Sandrin; Titti, his mother’s darling, whose fair good looks attract him to the Mussolini fascisti, dies of peritonitis at age 22.

Unfortunately, except for Dolly, the reader never really knows any of the other characters. Since neither Marcello nor Sandrin voices his point of view, the reader has no clue as to their inner turmoil, but only how they are perceived by others. Gemma is too narcissistic to go beyond the superficial. Yet, despite its weaknesses, “Voices” cannot but fascinate the reader with Miss Bonnucci’s charming account of how this rich Jewish family sees itself and reacts to a changing world.

When Kaavya Viswanathan, a beautiful 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard University, first published her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life (Little Brown and Company, $21.95, 314 pages), it was a sure-fire hit. Then came word that one paragraph was plagiarized; then a second paragraph. The sizeable advance for a second novel was withdrawn as was the novel itself, awaiting — perhaps — a second, corrected publication. Opal Mehta has more or less disappeared.

What is the buzz and fuss all about? “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed” is a charming first novel, the story of a young Indian girl (much like Miss Viswanathan herself) growing up in New Jersey and in her last year of high school, whose one dream is to be admitted to Harvard, a dream fostered by her immigrant parents.

Opal is brilliant, one of the “geeks” in the class. She has no friends, spends all her time studying and is a science whiz. When she blows her Harvard interview because she has no life outside her studies, her parents embark on a program to make her a popular “regular” high school student.

Opal sets out to join the snooty “in” group in the class, forsakes her former science oriented classmates and goes about the job of becoming popular with all her energy She cuts her hair, buys provocative clothes, watches the “correct” television shows, all with the encouragement of her parents. The plan succeeds only too well.

When her new friends accidentally discover that Opal’s new self is just a pose, she is ostracized and humiliated. In the course of the final, unhappy weeks of the school year, she falls in love and discovers what is truly important. There’s a happy ending.

The novel is not great literature; it’s not on a par with Zadie Smith’s wonderful “White Teeth,” another novel by a young writer about an immigrant family, that one in London. But Opal Mehta is fun and a delight. The clever, satirical tone keeps the reader chuckling. While the plot and characters, except for Opal herself, are banal, they are given a lively, energetic twist by Miss Viswanathan.

It’s a novel full of humor and amusing asides, with a wonderfully authentic glimpse at what is surely a real picture of the immigrant middle class Indian community. It’s hard to believe that any of the plagiarized paragraphs could have more than minimal impact on Miss Viswanathan’s work.

It’s a pity that the young author has spoiled things for herself. But, time heals all, and even plagiary can be forgotten eventually (to wit, Doris Kearns), if it is not repeated. Clearly, Miss Viswanathan is a talented young woman. It would be a loss all around for that talent not to be allowed to blossom in the future. Good luck, Kaavya.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.

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