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Book Review : Death Through a Smoked Glass Darkly

October 23, 1985|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Unloved. From the Diary of Perla S. by Arnost Lustig (Arbor House: $14.95)

"Only what does not exist is beautiful," says Ludmila, shortly before she is sent from the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp to the death camps farther east.

In Arnost Lustig's elusive and compelling novel, the logic of the camps drains the value scale down to absolute zero; the temperature where metals shatter and projectiles sheer wildly off. The beauty of what does not exist; this is almost like speaking of gas-chamber annihilation as a beatific vision.

Lustig, a concentration camp survivor himself, is not saying so, of course. But in "The Unloved," he constructs an eerie, frozen world where it might come to seem so.

Part Limbo, Part Dream

Ludmila is a friend of Perla S., the 17-year-old Jewish girl who keeps the diary that makes up the novel. So are Mr. L., a member of the camp's board of elders, O., and old painter, Harychek, inventor of a concentration camp Monopoly whose moves all lead to Dachau, and Milenka, who is mad. All will go east in the six months that the diary covers and, winding it up, so will Perla.

There is no Anne Frank about her. The camp is extra-planetary. It lacks a past, since nothing in the characters' prewar lives, difficult as they were, has the slightest bearing on the sublunar existence they find themselves in. It has no future, except that of the freight trains that leave each day for the east.

It is part limbo and part dream. All the figures, including the dreamer, find themselves performing recognizable actions in an unrecognizable context. Life goes on--the elders administer it day by day under the German guns, small businesses are conducted, there is a cafe featuring a musical group called the Ghetto Swingers--but, suspended between its nonexistent past and future, it is life without references.

And so, Perla's diary alternately seizes us and loses us. We keep fixing on the actions, emotions and speculations of this adolescent, only to have them change shape and fog over.

First of all, there is the steady punctuation, like an icicle's drip, of passages such as this one: "Five times. A candle. A jar of strawberry jam. Winter socks. Twenty-five marks. Eleven marks." Or: "Once. Five yards of electric wire with a plug at each end. A box of safety pins."

Perla sleeps with the other inmates, who give her bits and pieces of their possessions. It is far beyond prostitution. It is an exchange of life in the only shrivel form available. Each partner has so little to give. Her presents are the midden from a starved world's pocket. She is frail, abstract and with only a tremor of sensuality. She is less a body than a way of remembering a world where bodies were instruments of life and not the raw material of death.

Faith Is Splintering

Perla choses life for as long as she can. Mr. L., client and friend, uses his position to withhold her name from the transportation lists, until he too is transported. But she lives mainly to make sense out of her trackless world. She questions all those she is with, looking for clues.

There is a rabbi whose faith in God's compact with his Chosen People is splintering. Why was Abraham so blindly obedient when commanded to slay Isaac, she wonders. "Maybe had the father asked why back then we wouldn't have to ask why today." The rabbi, who kills himself, has no answer.

There is a final terrible scene with a Luftwaffe officer who visits her indifferently, offering a fraudulent illusion of protection. He is a pale, reptilian figure, and Perla's words, confusing at first, gradually take on a dreadful clarity.

That is the style and heart of this subtle and frightening book. Perla's adolescent speculations are awkward and trite, sometimes, and often vague and disjointed enough to seem more a disguise than a revelation.

Lustig has deliberately created a mist around her. Periodically, the mist clears to reveal the world's wreckage. We can only look at an eclipse of the sun this way: through smoked glass.

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