'The Laws,' a European hit, is cryptic

July 20, 1993|By Laurie Kaplan | Laurie Kaplan,Contributing Writer

"The Laws" received the European Novel of the Year Award and earned much critical praise as a first novel when it was published in 1990. Now translated into English from the Dutch, this slim text will have a certain snob appeal to a circumscribed American audience -- to readers of Lingua Franca, for example -- since the book is a kind of deconstructionist portrait of the artist as a young philosophy student.

This is a work that demands close reading. "You think me cerebral, abstract and cryptic," the narrator says coyly, and the novel is exactly that.

Marie Deniet, the first-person narrator of "The Laws," is "hopefully in love with the twentieth century" and the "whizzy-dizzy texts" of the French philosophers. She quests not only for a degree in philosophy but also, to reduce it to an absurdity, for a key to the meaning of life. As Marie recounts how she pursues her degree and Truth, we learn much about the powerful, creative men who shape her ideas with very little about her own interior life.

She dazzles people with her intellect, not with her personality. Withholding her own name until near the end of the book, allowing the men to call her whatever they wish, she tells a tale that is less a story about her individual growth than a quasi-philosophical treatise that raises fundamental questions about the instability of interpretation.

The form of the novel and the lack of linear development reflect Marie's schizophrenia. On the one hand, she demands order and "simply cannot stand it when things don't go the way I had thought them to previously," and then, paradoxically, she longs for unpredictable events.

Marie believes "the laws" govern behavior, texts, philosophy, criticism, literature, physics, disease and relationships, and yet she cannot sort out what is meaningful to her. The narrator's self-effacing self-irony is often hilarious but disturbing. "I ought to know what I am," she says. "That's the interpretation of the law."

This kind of logic shows how fragile she is, how reliant on others' opinions to give her life substance. She seems totally unable to explain her raunchy, subservient and not the least bit erotic toe-licking episode with the hunchback philosopher. Wallowing in disgust, asserting that she is perfectly unreachable, Marie suddenly shows signs of stress fractures beneath all that brilliance.

"Only connect" seems to be Marie's motto. She plunges into unexplainable relationships with characters as diverse as The Astrologer, The Epileptic, The Philosopher, The Priest, The Physicist, The Artist and The Psychiatrist.

The reader, too, must do some connecting. Name-dropping her way through her story, she forces the reader to develop a coherent pattern of meaning from refences to Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Hegel, Freud, Mann, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Goethe, Musil and Beckett. Marie starts out being "quite gaga about Foucault," but by the time she is introduced to Derrida she cannot discriminate between good and evil. In the end, however, she remembers that "life was a good deal simpler when I still believed in God."

There is a very European sensibility behind this intricate novel that personalizes the universal quest for truth and meaning.

Connie Palmen, like her narrator, lives in the Netherlands and studied philosophy and literature, and by intertwining fiction, autobiography and other forms of discourse, she explores the triangular relationship between the writer, the book and the world.

Unlike other recent academic novels, which are often farcical, "The Laws" has tragic implications. In her descent into madness, Marie bemoans her fate that "no literature comes out of me," even though she has written a thesis that is an "apologia for being a writer." "The Laws" also takes on a serious responsibility: Perhaps Connie Palmen, like Marie Deviet, writes "to free life of its meaninglessness."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Laws"

Author: Connie Palmen; translated by Richard Huijing

Publisher: George Braziller

(Length, price: 197 pages, $20

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