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December 29, 1985|ALEX RAKSIN

Darkness Casts No Shadow; Night and Hope; Arnost Lustig (Northwestern University: $6.95 and $7.95). The backdrop for these stories is black--evil, betrayal and death--but in Arnost Lustig's works, it's the courage, dignity and bravery of characters in the foreground that one remembers. They might be "wrapped in pain, the way the darkness was wrapped in light and the stones in water," but the two boys in "Darkness Casts No Shadow" narrowly escape a train traveling to a Holocaust death camp because of their conviction that to keep moving is everything. Lustig's stories chronicle survival, not only suffering, during the Holocaust. They are sagas of adventure and endurance as well as parables with a timeless, humanistic message: Ultimately, any attempt to eclipse the individual will fail. Even the Nazis required that their actions be legitimized in their own eyes, writes Jonathan Brent in a new, perceptive introduction to "Night and Hope," and so, unless the individual agrees to his own extermination, it is the totalitarian state that loses. "Night and Hope," based on the author's own experience as a child in the Terezin concentration camp, collects seven stories: A woman struggles to retain her dignity despite her slow death; children band together after their family units are shattered. In "Darkness Has No Shadow," purposeful Danny and reflective Manny also have the necessary resources to endure and rebel, but the sheer evil of the townspeople who hunt the two, starving, emaciated boys at the end of the book often threatens to overshadow Lustig's optimistic message. Lustig has tried to show that all were oppressed during World War II--"Everybody wished for wind or for the Earth to rotate in the opposite direction"--but the reader cannot help concluding that some were more victims than others.

Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon, Theodore H. White (Laurel: $4.95). When the Supreme Court hearings on the involvement of the Nixon Administration in Watergate began with the traditional "God-save-the-United-States-and-this-Honorable-Court," the words could be taken at face value. After beginning with this confrontation between the judicial and executive branches of government, leading political historian Theodore H. White holds the dramatic tension for 436 pages. Former President Richard M. Nixon's final moments in office are made all the more engaging, for instance, because White centers on the efforts of former Chief of Staff Alexander M. Haig Jr. to trigger "political realities which the President would be unable to ignore." The rest of the book looks at Nixon's rise to office, explaining how the embattled President came to view politics as a war. Nixon, White writes, failed to understand "how faith worked."

Swallow, D. M. Thomas (Washington Square: $4.50) visits an international Olympiad dedicated not to sports but to poetic improvisation. Markov, a Soviet poet, invents Charsky, a failed Soviet writer and dissident, while Rozanov improvises about Surkov, another writer who knows when to be outrageous and when to absorb all that free food and drink offered. Despite the many layers of the book's plot, which continually moves between fantasy and reality, these four characters make up the book's core. While D. M. Thomas is primarily interested in their battle between speaking out and selling out, he doesn't burden readers with weighty tracts on the artist's struggle to balance libertarian principles with the need to be officially supported. The stories in this book are humorous, full of parody as Thomas takes on various institutions. Surkov, for instance, meets a U.S. President who suffers from a "slowness" that causes him to answer not the question he is asked, but the one before it (asked what woman he most admires, he replies "the Pope, perhaps"; asked how he visualizes God, he answers, "I guess, Margaret Thatcher").

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