Japan, Cuba, Bosnia, Vietnam

Novels Of June

June 04, 2000|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

In an original work of fictional anthropology, Liza Dalby in "The Tale of Murasaki" (Doubleday: Nan A. Talese, 448 pages, $24.95) imagines the life of the author of "The Tale of Genji." Drawing on an extant memoir fragment written at the end of Lady Murasaki's life, Dalby transports the reader to eighth century Heian Japan. "My grandmother warned me that pensiveness was not attractive to eligible men," Murasaki confides. She is an artist and an intellectual, a woman unlike those "with babies" whose "thoughts scatter like cherry blossoms." To her chagrin, she discovers that "women who flourish in this world are pleasant, gentle, self-possessed and keep a low profile."

Murasaki enjoys, Dalby speculates, a lesbian relationship with an older friend: "meekly, as befitted a younger sister, I allowed her to teach me about love." Yet she soon falls in love with a Chinese man named Ming-gwok, and she later marries and has a daughter. In a sparkling scene, Murasaki meets that other great woman writer of Heian-kyo, Sei Shonagon, author of "The Pillow Book." Dalby ends boldly with a "lost" chapter from "The Tale of Genji."

"The Question of Bruno" by Aleksandar Hemon (Doubleday: Nan A. Talese, 240 pages, $22.95) carries news from the Sarajevo front. These are stories by a young immigrant chronicling that transitional moment between the fall of Communism and the rise of a new era. Hopelessness flowing from the extinction of the socialist ideal in Europe has yielded a deranged nationalism. Yet when Hemon's hero, Pronek, in "Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls," the best piece in the collection, lands in America, he finds a landscape of dead souls, Redskins fans and eaters of filthy junk food, an unholy place. The inhabitants believe he is a Russian and hold their noses. Indeed, he is unappealing in every way, not least in his odor. Pronek sits watching the war in Sarajevo on CNN.

The imagery in these stories is dark and original. German tourists vomit. Dogs kill Sarajevo cats in a Darwinian nightmare that comes to fruition in America where "only the fittest survive."

"What kind of evolutional soup did these people's lives emerge from?" Pronek wonders.

In another story, Vanyka, a child, becomes a murderous cannibal in one of Stalin's camps. Hemon sees a dead end for the species. "People are so ugly," he writes, "that they should be liberated from the obligation to have photos in their identity cards. Or, at least, in their Party cards." History is on one spool, from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Pronek becoming a parking attendant during A.D. 1996 in Chicago, USA, a biographical detail.

Read Julia Alvarez's "In the Name of Salome" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 368 pages, $23.95) for the poignant story, biographical in method, of women who take part in the historical upheavals of two centuries. Salome Urena, a real-life figure, becomes the national poet of the Dominican Republic; her daughter, Camila, a professor of literature in the United States, in middle age joins the Cuban revolution of 1959. Camila sacrifices the comforts of her later years not out of admiration for Fidel Castro, but out of homage to her mother: "I had never thought of the real revolution as the one Fidel was commanding," she says after 13 years in Cuba. The scenes of Camila's life in Cuba are conveyed in the present tense, befitting a revolution still in progress.

Not least among Alvarez's achievements in this stirring novel is her depiction of a continuum linking the lives of women. In her poetry, Salome dreamed in the 19th century of freeing "la patria with my sharp quill and bottle of ink." Her daughter wants "to give herself completely to something, yes, like her mother."

What women need, Alvarez suggests, is "a great love, a settled home, a free country." Salome and Camila stand firmly on the cusp of history, neither beautiful, neither protected by a man, both with fulfillment firmly within their grasp.

Norris Church Mailer has written "Windchill Summer" (Random House, 448 pages, $24.95), a sprawling saga set in Arkansas in the1960s, with alternating scenes in Vietnam; these include an eye-witness account of the My Lai massacre, complete with characterization of Lieutenant Calley. Mailer's theme is the damage wrought by that war on the souls of the participants and on the fragile hopes of those left behind. Her main character is Cherry, a six-foot-tall, green-eyed albino with an exuberance common to contemporary fictional Southern women of the Ya Ya sisterhood.

The returning veterans are drug-addicted, violent and dangerous. The one local boy who did not, pace Joseph Conrad, "go ashore for a howl and a dance" wound up dead. There is much good writing, including the smells of the Cu Chi tunnels, which soak this novel. At home, the "First Apostolic Holiness Church of God" ("a real Don't religion") can save no one.

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