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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Inquisitors' Manual by Antonio Lobo Antunes, Translated by Richard Zenith (Grove Press) In his eleventh novel, Antonio Lobo Antunes, one of the great European literary masters, chronicles the decadence not just of a family but of an entire society -- a society morally and spiritually vitiated by four decades of totalitarian rule. Senhor Francisco, a once powerful state minister and a personal friend of the Portuguese dictator Salazar, is incapacitated by a stroke, and as he spends his last days in a nursing home in Lisbon , he reviews his life and his loves. His son Joao, raised by the housekeeper, grows up to be good-hearted but totally inept, so that his ruthless in-laws easily defraud him of his father's farm. The minister's illegitimate daughter, Paula, whom he had with the cook and who was raised by a childless widow in another town, is ostracized after the Revolution due to her father's position in Salazar's regime. The emotional turmoil enveloping Francisco's family finally catches up with him when the Revolution ends the forty-two years of the dictatorship, and the old regime tumbles like a castle of cards. Senhor Francisco, more paranoid than ever, remains a large but empty shadow of his seeming omnipotence. The Inquisitors' Manual is at once an inquiry into the difficult coexistence of self-affirmation and tenderness toward others, and a powerful examination of a totalitarian sensibility.

Heartsnatcher by Boris Vian, translated by Stanley Chapman (Dalkey Archive Press) Set in a bizarre and slightly sinister town where the elderly are auctioned off at an Old Folks Fair, the townspeople assail the priest in hopes of making it rain, and the official town scapegoat bears the shame of the citizens by fishing junk out of the river with his teeth, Heartsnatcher is Boris Vian’s most playful and most serious work. The main character is Clementine, a mother who punishes her husband for causing her the excruciating pain of giving birth to three babies. As they age, she becomes increasingly obsessed with protecting them, going so far as to build an invisible wall around their property.

All of these events are observed by Timortis, an elegant psychiatrist appalled by the town’s oddities, who searches for someone to psychoanalyze in order to fill the void in his own personality. Unsuccessful, he settles for a neutered cat and a maid who thinks “psychoanalyze” is a euphemism for sex.

As witty and strange as the best of Raymond Queneau and Eugene Ionesco, Heartsnatcher is the last book Vian completed before his death in 1959.

Although best known as a novelist and playwright, during his brief lifetime Boris Vian was also an engineer, poet, song­writer, actor, scriptwriter, translator, painter, composer, jazz trumpeter, and a member of the College of Metaphysics . His first novel, J’irari cracher sur vos tombes (I Spit on Your Graves ), was both his biggest success and greatest curse. At the movie premiere of his only best-seller, Vian is rumored to have commented, “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” before dying in the theater from a heart attack. He was 39 at the time of his death.

Schopenhauer's Telescope by Gerard Donovan (Counterpoint) Part love story, part moral treatise, part theatre of the absurd, this brilliant first novel is an examination of the complexity of the human spirit. In Schopenhauer's Telescope, Donovan, poet and English teacher, creates a chilling, international novel, a new myth for our age.

In an unnamed European village, in the middle of a civil war, one man, a baker, digs while another watches over him. Slowly, they begin to talk. Over the course of the afternoon, as snow falls and truckloads of villagers are corralled in the next field, we discover why they are there – not just who they are but also how sinister events in the country have led them to be separated by a deepening grave, and why the history of civilization is inseparable from the history of mass violence.

Schopenhauer, the history teacher tells the baker, has a theory about creating a type of instant perspective. If you find yourself in a crisis, go fifty years into the future and view yourself through the wrong end of a telescope. Observe your situation, and then decide what you would do in that situation with the benefit of hindsight. Then come back to the present and act on your decision. It may be that Schopenhauer said ten or one hundred years, or maybe Schopenhauer said nothing of the kind. However the history teacher believes it to be so, and anyone can check on this theory. The beauty of this story is that it is left in the capable hands of the history teacher and the baker.

Beautifully written, with a poet's eye for detail together with a compelling narrative current, Schopenhauer's Telescope is up-to-date in the best sense – this is not an allegory of Bosnia or Kosovo but a remarkable attempt to make art`out of the brutality of life. I’m thinking, this one may be in the class with Siddhartha by Franz Kafka. |/span>

You're an Animal, Viskovitz! by Alessandro Boffa (Knopf) From Italy, a wildly modern riff on Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a whirlwind of ironic fables in which the central hero, Viskovitz, continually changes identities in pursuit of his one true love.
A snail with two sexes, a parrot who speaks of love, a dormouse who has erotic dreams, a police dog who’s a Buddhist, a microbe with an inferiority complex, a lion in love with a gazelle, a chameleon hoping to find himself, an intestinal worm, a dung beetle . . . Viskovitz is each of these animals and many more, possessed by their behaviors, their neuroses, their vanities. And the gorgeous and impossible Ljuba, the object of Viskovitz’s desire, is in turn a sow, a bitch, a gazelle. There is an animal passion between them that lasts from story to story, but it is the fullness of the human condition that is portrayed most vividly in these hilarious metamorphoses.

Dazzling beginnings lead into plots full of surprises, ranging from slapstick to Western, from cautionary tale to thriller. Scientific jargon is turned into wordplay and witty aphorism; theatrical reversals and philosophical insights abound.
You're an Animal, Viskovitz! is a triumph of comic inventiveness and intelligence unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Berg by Ann Quin (Dalkey Archive) "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. . . . " So begins Ann Quin's first novel (1964), a bleak and gritty story of three characters--Alastair Berg, his father, and their mistress. Written in a style that vacillates between dirty realism and surreal comedy, Berg chronicles the interrelations between these three characters as they slowly circle one another in an ascending spiral of violence. A wonderful complex weave of words and imagery always gripping in sentiment.

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