Trying to make sense of life

April 07, 1991|By Sherie Posesorski

"We tell ourselves stories to live," Joan Didion once wrote. Th necessity to make some sense of the diverse and mysterious experiences of our lives, compels us to take those puzzle pieces and shape them into a rational storyline.

That pivotal progress is central in two recent novels. "The Smile of the Lamb," by Israeli author David Grossman (translated by Betsy Rosenberg; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 325 pages; $19.95) and "Into the Blue," by English novelist Robert Goddard (Poseidon Press; 416 pages; $19.95.). In both novels, a cataclysmic event shakes the characters out of their sleepwalking torpor. Before they can move forward, they have to sift through the story fragments of their own lives and those around them to determine the true story.

Mr. Grossman is best known for his 1989 novel "See: Under Love," an imaginative and technical tour de force focusing on a community of Holocaust survivors living in Israel, and for "The Yellow Wind," his controversial non-fiction account of a three-month stay in the West Bank. He explores similar themes and concerns (primarily the crippling legacy of war on Israelis and Palestinians) in "The Smile of the Lamb," his first novel, written in 1983 and now translated into English.

The novel takes place in one day -- a day when the lives of three young Israelis and an elderly Arab tragically intersect. Uri Laniando has been stationed in the West Bank. He has become close friends with Khilmi, an elderly Arab who is regarded as strange in his village because of his physical deformities and mysticism. Uri's idealistic convictions are shattered by the news that two Arabs were killed by his army troop in a riot and by the embittered revelation by his wife, Shosh, of her infidelity. Uri runs off to stay with Khilmi in his cave.

Khilmi has his own sorrow: One of the Arabs who was shot was Yazdi, a retarded boy he raised. Having lost any faith that there will be peaceful accommodation between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- and despite his affection for Uri -- he holds Uri hostage. Khilmi threatens to kill him if Israeli soldiers don't

withdrawn from the West Bank.

Katzman, Uri's military commander, feels responsible for the whole mess. A Holocaust survivor, he is cynical and pessimistic aboutalmost everything and everybody, except Uri. Shosh is also burdened by guilt. A psychologist who works with juvenile delinquents, Shosh's manipulative sessions with a disturbed teen-ager, Mordy, caused him to commit suicide.

The four characters and their stories are intertwined by circumstances and bonds of love, loss, guilt and disillusionment. Still, because their narrations do not strongly project the sounds of their voices or the force of their feelings, they seem at times less driven by their natures and more by the philosophies and politices that Mr. Grossman is dramatizing. Ironically, although "The Smile of the Lamb" is a much more accessible novel than "See: Under Love," the clarity of Mr. Grossman's style and storytelling in his earlier novel has the effect of spotlighting the self-consciousness of its ideas and artifice.

Robert Goddard, on the other hand, works very well indeed within the conventions of the suspense thriller. As familiar as the material of "Into the Blue" is, every character, every plot element has been meticulously and ingeniously crafted. The plot is an intricate, tension-inducing intellectual puzzle in which even the most casually introduced information fits into the puzzle with a surprising twist. The characters -- though stock English types -- are vivid and convincing, and Mr. Goddard's prose is lucid and elegant.

When Harry Barnett, the reluctant hero, considers his life (usually he is successful at blunting the hard corners of memory with alcohol) he sees himself as a middle-aged failure. For the past nine years, he has been living on the Greek island of Rhodes, tending the villa of Alan Dysart, an English member of Parliament who once worked for him. The "into the blue" disappearance of a young Englishwoman, Heather Mallender, who was staying at the villa, breaks the spell of Harry's inertia.

Initally, he investigates her disappearance in order to clear ZTC himself of the police suspicion that he murdered her. After developing a roll of photographs she left behind, he becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. His trail leads back to England and his own conncections with her family and Alan Dysart.

All in all, this is a classic thriller -- a Rolls-Royce of the genre.

Ms. Posesorski is a writer living in Toronto.

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