Cuba, Australia, Hungary, Boston

Autumn Novels

September 24, 2000|By Beth Kephart | Beth Kephart,Special to the Sun

There's a novel for every propensity and purpose this fall -- flaring sagas and sweet little nothings; inventions of the future; reimaginings of the past. Some are clinquant, explosive, daring, unsettling. One is fiction as politics, another fiction as idea. And one, the littlest one, does no more than tell a story, and down it goes, after all the others, like a wash of Southern Comfort.

In terms of sheer intelligence, intensity and lure, "The Return of Felix Nogara" (Persea Books, 278 pages, $25.95), by Cuban emigree Pablo Medina, stands out. Centered on a Caribbean island that the author calls Barata but readers are meant to understand as Cuba, "Felix Nogara" imagines what might happen at the end of a Castro-like reign.

The catalyst for action is the return of the eponymous hero to "the island of his birth, the focus of all his attention, his imagination, and his concern." It's been 38 years since Nogara set foot on Barata, and it is through him that we learn the magnificent island's history and come to understand the impossible condition of the exile.

Medina's writing is nothing short of unrelentingly brilliant, his conceptualization of this confabulated place tinged with a bloody, forceful passion. This is fiction conjured with a camera-like precision, as with this sentence that recalls a stage in Barata's past: "And so the city of Carenas came to resemble a carnival with bands of musicians playing sarabandes on street corners, poets in the parks reciting sonnets in the Italian manner -- and the French prostitutes, dressed in suggestive costumes, strolling in their leisurely and lascivious manner through the marketplace, leaving behind the irresistible scent of rosewater and catastrophe."

There's nothing easy about Medina's vision, nothing consoling, and as the book moves back and forth between the life the exile has been forced to live and the island he has returned to, the reader must be willing to go where exiles must go, to not want overmuch for the hero.

"Felix's past lay on the other side of water," Medina writes. "To look there was to look at nothing, or to look at the shadow of something just beyond his reach." It is a desperate journey; it is, finally, profound. It is poetry used for a political purpose, and also a terribly personal one.

The ever-prolific neurophysiologist Colleen McCullough (of "The Thorn Birds" fame) has a big book out this fall. Called "Morgan's Run" (Simon & Schuster, 604 pages, $28), it has all the attributes of a sweeping historical saga -- a huge, thoroughly researched backdrop, tiny type, dialect-peppered dialogue, and a cataclysmic befalling of fates on nearly every page.

"Morgan's Run" begins in 18th century Bristol, England, with the battle cry, "We are at war!" and, with the snappiness of a confident hand, quickly introduces the characters that will stand at the heart of this book. Prime among the English folk is Richard Morgan, a good and resourceful man, who, in horrifically short order, loses his daughter, then his wife, then his son, then (but only momentarily) his common sense, before finally being hauled off to jail on a trumped-up charge.

Soon Morgan is headed toward the hostile, unknown continent of Australia, as part of the great British experiment that sent its unwanted, criminal element to a land on the opposite side of the globe. Perils abound -- on the sea, on the land -- and systematically Morgan stares them down.

There's nothing fancy here in the way McCullough tells her story -- no structural pyrotechnics, no similes more original than "his teeth were white as snow." But what makes this book so fun and worthwhile is the terrific attention McCullough has paid to the times, the fascinating array of details that she and her research team have resurrected and used to paint a portrait of an unlikely, imperiled community on a harsh, but yielding land.

Simone Zelitch's novel "Louisa" (Putnam, 377 pages, $24.95) is smart, ironic, original and structurally sophisticated, a hard-core work of art by a clearly hard-working author. Here again the subject at hand is exiles -- from country, from idealism, from love -- and while the story is ostensibly concerned with the fate of the Hungarian Jews before and after World War II, it may also be taken as a modern-day retelling of the biblical story of the widow Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.

Nora, the story's sarcastic, star-crossed narrator, is Zelitch's stand-in for Naomi, while Louisa, the German would-be-opera singer who marries Nora's good-for-nothing son then hides Nora during the German occupation, is Zelitch's transliterated version of Ruth. Both of them -- the German, the disillusioned Jew -- end up in Israel together, and this is where the story begins.

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