Following a reluctant emigre in language clearly confusing

May 08, 1994|By Maude A. McDaniel

Sometimes a book review just won't do: You have to read the book itself to find out if you want to read it. Hortense Calisher, doyenne among American writers with about 20 consistently smashing books to her credit, has turned out a raft of work like that, called "challenging and singular" by her publisher. Here is yet another, a brilliant, tiresome novel that rewards a second reading, although perhaps not enough to inspire one.

A film director in the "bitterly enclosed country" of Albania, Paul Gonchev finds himself a dissident who dissents from being a dissident. Kidnapped to the United States by his wife, who sees him as compromised by shooting travelogues on sound-stage imitations of the great cities of the world, he's a study in unwilling freedom.

Formerly from the Balkans, China and Japan, he has adapted to transitoriness, and especially to limitations. "Trained to understand their profound force on a stage set or in history," he must experience months on the emigre lecture tour in the "daylight country" -- not to mention an earthquake in California -- to readjust his director's eye.

The plot sounds straightforward, but it's far from apparent that this is what it amounts to really. At first the novel is ravishing, coherent enough, and chock full of oblique ("You could never trust a river not to be lyric") and ironic ("Almost any natural substance can be made to look like plastic") Calisherisms.

Her finely sculptured short stories appeal more to my sense of form and feeling. ("Time, Gentlemen," from her collection "Tale of the Mirror," overwhelmed me when I was young and still does.) But all the novels are verbally heady.

Here Gonchev observes an Albanian pub scene: "the agricultural workers straggle [in] at end of day . . . hunchbacked and swollen with the land, to sit in musclebound talk, their drinks paced . . . by the rhythms from which they come . . . [They] have a cropped stare, a terse honesty of the joints. He likes to watch them, seeing the bar and its patrons are linked to all such the world over, through the dark archive of the physical."

Or Gonchev on rock music: "Armies of teddybears crying for the bottle, to a tomtom background of orchestras that have never learned the full scale. . . ."

Her prose is so delicious that you want to hold it up to the light and take small sips, for savoring. But it is also possible to get so drunk on words that the meanings lose all coordination. Or perhaps vice versa. After following Gonchev and his translator-lover, Roko, on a disconnected tour of various bits and pieces of American psyches and countrysides, we emerge with a happy ending, a most unexpected vote for America and a severe case of "say what?"

Ms. Calisher makes an effort to probe the humanity of her characters, but the personal still comes up missing amid tricky tense work and cryptic intellectualization. There's a good deal of short-take wisdom here, however, about art, dissidence and diversity.

And art itself abounds, though not always of the sort the heart carries after, or to which life resonates. The advice from here is: Read this book and see for yourself if you really want to read it. Again.

Ms. McDaniel is a writer who lives in Cumberland.

Title: "In the Palace of the Movie King"

Author: Hortense Calisher

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 423 pages, $25

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