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"New" books from Europe - a roundup


The Lover, by Marguerite Duras; Pantheon, $11.95. The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi; Schocken, $16.95. The Assault, by Harry Mulisch; Pantheon, $13.95.

Works with literary pretentions are rarely bestsellers, let alone major bestsellers. But L'Amant (The Lover), by French author Marguerite Duras, is such a rare animal. An unprecedented success in France, it has successively conquered most European countries, with the total number of copies sold reaching well into seven figures. In June, the hardcover edition entered the American market, and a paperback version is due soon.

Such success inspires curiosity, and creates expectations. Unfortunately, having read the book, I cannot but confess feeling disappointed.

Thus far, Duras' major claim to world renown was the 1959 Resnais film Hiroshima Mon Amour, for which she wrote the script. The Lover bears an uncanny resemblance to this illustrious predecessor. Again, the setting is East Asia (Saigon, as versus Hiroshima), the subject is a short-lived love affair between a French woman and an Asian, and the atmosphere depressing. Again, the narrative is capricious -- a succession of images jumping to and fro, a battle of memory and association.

The book's narrator, the daughter of poor French colonists in Indochina, looks back on an affair she had at age 15 with a rich and much older Chinese man. From the onset, the affair is doomed, as the social barriers separating the girl from her lover are insurmountable. The girl's struggle with her feelings, and simultaneously with the material and spiritual plight of her family, convey a sense of tragedy in the book which, although less morbid than that of the film, is no less compelling.

What the book lacks in comparison to the film is a sense of speed. True, Duras' sketchy style, suggesting preparatory notes rather than a full-fledged account, is evocative at first. But in time, as image follows image in discontinuous, often chaotic succession, it generates fatigue rather than interest. In the end, I felt as if I had read five hundred, rather than some hundred fifty pages.

Ten years old by now, but only recently translated into English, is Primo Levi's Il Sistema Periodico (The Periodic Table). Though it hasn't become a bestseller yet, there can be little doubt that it will eventually be considered a classic. In any case, it should win Levi the audience which, for good reason, his countrymen Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco already have.

Levi is a chemist turned author. In his hands, the elements of the periodic table become powerful metaphors, and chemistry a representation of human endeavor in general.

The chapters of The Periodic Table each concentrate upon a single chemical element. Iron, for example, tells the story of Levi's friendship with a fellow student, later killed in the War; the title refers both to the iron obtained in a chemical analysis mentioned in the chapter and to the character of the friend. In Gold, Levi, a partisan captured by the Fascists, meets a smuggler soon to be released; the man talks about his quest for gold in the mountains, which he will be able to resume when he is free.

In cases like these, the allusions are quite obvious, but substances less burdened with traditional symbolism, like cerium or vanadium, are handled in a similar way.

The Periodic Table is not a captivating book in the usual sense of the word; rather, it establishes a bond of sympathy with its reader. (This, incidentally, may partially explain why its fascination takes a while to catch on.) It makes you read with the kind of interest you would have for the experiences of a good friend.

Occasionally, it is nostalgic, without being sentimental. Surprisingly, even the most negative experiences -- like those connected with the War, part of which Levi spent in Auschwitz -- are narrated with resignation and suppressed bitterness rather than overt indignation or rancour. Levi's style contributes heavily to this effect; calmly paced, it is devoid of any rhetoric.

I am not a chemist, but after reading The Periodic Table I almost regret it, for Levi makes a convincing case for his science. As he says in Silver, the job of a chemist is merely a particular case of the job of living; and his implicit plea that every aspect of life is delicate and precious commands respect. It is this plea which constitutes the book's major merit, and is the reason why it shouldn't be missed.

To an outside observer, Dutch literature is shadowy. Squashed between more widely understood and more easily accessible tongues, the Dutch language rarely acts as vehicle for thoughts and emotions appealing to a global audience -- or so it seems, if the frequency of translations is a good measure. All the more memorable is the occasional exception, of course, and there is one this summer: the English translation of De Aanslag (The Assault), by Harry Mulisch.

Whether Mulisch is really Holland's most important postwar writer (as Pantheon claims in its publicity campaign), I wouldn't dare say. There can be no doubt, though, that he is among Holland's most consistently interesting authors. Most of his books (and the best among them) relate to World War II and its aftermath. With his Jewish mother and a father convicted for collaboration with the Nazis, Mulisch, if anybody, is a child of the War.

The Assault revolves about the 1945 assassination of a collaborator by the Dutch Resistance in occupied Holland. In reprisal for the attack, the Nazis execute a family living nearby, except for the youngest son, whose subsequent life we follow. As he grows older he gradually discovers the complex branchings of the event. Thus emerges a thrilling example of the fatality of coincidences, a compelling paradigm of the frailty of human life.

The honor of translation is so rare in Dutch literature that the Dutch press has scrutinized the English version almost as closely as the original. A consensus has been reached on the quality of the translation: it is wretched. For example, it is beyond comprehension how someone with even a vague familiarity with the historical context of the book would write social democrats for the original abbreviation S.D. (which is really for Sicherheitsdienst, a branch of the German military police). Still, the impact of The Assault survives blunders like this.

For those interested in reading the untranslated versions, Schoenhof's (1280 Mass. Ave.) sells L'Amant (Editions de Minuit, $9.95) and Il Sistema Periodico (Einaudi, $8.95).

Michiel Bos->