Amorality, Maoism, Jewishness

November 29, 1998|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Doubleday was set to publish Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam" (193 pages, $21) in February, but "Amsterdam" has won Britain's most prestigious prize, the Booker, and so here it is in December, crowding Christmas. A sublime composer, an ambitious journalist, a seedy politician, a vengeful husband - all have been under the sexual spell of restaurant critic Molly Lane. Molly dies before the novel opens. What follows is a romp through millennial England, filled with bright people who believe in nothing but their own pleasure.

Clive Linley, the composer, bored and without affect, concludes that "there wasn't really much else to do. Make something and die." Journalist Vernon Halliday doubts the fact of his own existence. Julian Garmony, foreign secretary, who once advocated that Nelson Mandela be hanged, is a cross-dresser: should the journalist print the photographs surreptitiously slipped to him by Molly's heavy-witted husband?

Ethical dilemmas are like thorns burrowing into the flesh of these amoral people. By the end all are ruined by their moral vacancy. There is no hero, only just deserts. McEwan writes his elegy for the dead century with a fine, sharp, searing pen as he skewers the makers and shakers of a society he abhors.

"In The Pond" by Ha Jin (Zoland, 178 pages, $20) is as darkly uncompromising as "Amsterdam." Set in China and written by a Chinese dissident now living in America, it tells the story of Shao Bin, who will not bribe his superiors and so is condemned to live in a sweltering one-room with his wife and baby daughter. That Shao Bin is both a factory worker and a brilliant artist and accomplished painter provides Mr. Ha with his wicked story, a fairy tale turned nasty.

Brief as it is, "In the Pond" captures the full corruption of Maoist society. Shao Bin, his own worst enemy and the only admirable character, draws cartoons lampooning his superiors; he writes a 30-page "letter of accusation" to the local party secretary. "Where is their Communist conscience?" he demands. The party leaders scramble: "what could you do if a man feared nothing?" Bin's integrity is his downfall as, taking college entrance examinations, he forgets to express "his profound love for Chairman Mao, who, though he had passed away, was shedding happy rays on the Chinese nation like the sun in the sky."

Through these pages burns the author's love for the culture of the old China, one where "you ought to regard your teacher as a lifelong father, even if he had taught you just one day."

This short novel combines subtle characterization with searing social satire. Author Ha Jin eschews all sentimentality. His ending is sheer irony, devastating in its unrelenting finality.

"The Conversion" by Aharon Appelfeld (Shocken Books, 228 pages, $22) is a parable about the Jews of early twentieth-century Middle-Europe. Hitler is but a gleam in the eye of ruthless peasants who seize every opportunity to harass even the Jews who for the sake of their survival are converting in droves to Christianity.

Karl Hubner, Appelfeld's Jewish everyman, advances to the position of municipal secretary by converting. He suffers in silence the words of a colleague: "soon there won't be any Jews left." Yiddish has already become a "secret language."

There's a feel of Kafka to these pages. Converting only makes Karl feel even more Jewish. His escape from Neufeld to the remote town of Rosow will not suffice, for there is no place for a Jew anywhere in Europe, Appelfeld shows.

Steeped in hard inevitabilities and told in a hard, simple, rock-like prose by an Israeli novelist, "The Conversion" makes a silent argument for the desperate importance of a homeland for the Jews.

"The Hours" by Michael Cunningham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 230 pages, $22) is an extended riff on Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway." Three separate stories alternate: in one Mrs. Woolf herself lives out her last days; in another a late twentieth century lesbian "Mrs. Dalloway" who once loved a poet now dying of AIDS; in the third, set in 1949, a voracious reader named "Mrs. Brown" reads the novel "Mrs. Dalloway" and, like the author, succumbs to despair. Her name, of course, recalls PTC Virginia Woolf's famous essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," in which Woolf proclaimed that human nature changed in the year circa 1910.

For Cunningham as well, human nature has changed. Every one of his major characters is gay, or having once been heterosexual, becomes gay. Gender may be a "sorry masquerade," but Cunningham is obsessed by it, like those latter-day academics who substitute sexual politics for the real thing.

Heterosexual men in this book invariably suffer from an excess of "spittle" while the homosexual men are elegant, the objects of desire of men and women alike. Beneath the mannered patina of this passive-aggressive prose, we're in the realm of propaganda.

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