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The Cabalist by Amanda Prantera (Atheneum: $12.95; 184 pp.)

August 24, 1986|Roberta Smoodin | Smoodin's most recent novel is "Inventing Ivanov" (Atheneum). and

Joseph Kestler, the eponymous magician/scholar of "The Cabalist," thinks he's onto something--no less than the solution to the age-old question of what the cosmos is really about. Through the power of words, he's discovered he can manipulate raindrops and locusts and even a puppy into quietude and motion, and he's also made some inroads into translation of the cabala that are ground breaking. But he's ill, and may not be able to finish his work before he dies. He needs help. And he's got a demonically mischievous little boy plaguing him, whom he calls the Catcher because of the little boy's hobby--fishing with rope and hook, from the balcony of his Venice apartment down onto the piazza below, for hapless cats. There are many hapless cats in Venice, and when the Catcher catches them, he has the disturbing habit of dismembering them and leaving errant paws around for Joseph to find. The Catcher's name, it seems, is Giuseppe--Joseph, in Italian.

In his magical world of sorcery, word-play, doppelgangers, and narrative switches from first to third person, allowing us to be close to Joseph, then to observe him through a self-reflexive narrator who admits the artifice of this whole creation in the world's most artificial city, we are clearly in known literary territory--that of Borges-land, Nabokov-land, those writers who were as fascinated with the act of creation, the creativity of reading, the magic and power of words and information, as they were with the problems of creation of verisimilitude which face writers. Writing is not child's play, these authors seemed to be saying; neither should reading be.

Amanda Prantera's prose is not as dense as Nabokov's. Her ideas do not spiral out into cerebral mysticism as Borges' sometimes do. But this novel is not as satisfying as it should be, even given the awesome task she's undertaken in entering such clearly marked territory, because somehow one doesn't care enough about Joseph.

"Natural magic be blowed. He had tried Ficino's diet, and had nibbled conscientiously on white sugar and cinnamon for hours on end. He had bought himself a saffron-yellow dressing gown on Diaceto's suggestion, and when it had turned out to be not only useless but unbecoming as well, he had replaced it by a coal-black one--reputedly a good colour for getting on the right side of Saturn . . . . During one shaming-period, he even seemed to remember getting up at daybreak and chanting Pletho's hymns to the rising sun. And what had all this brought him? Nothing. Nothing at all, except a sore throat, and nagging indigestion from too much cinnamon in his food." The charm of Prantera's prose is evident, her gentle humor and her imagination. But also evident is the problem with Joseph--for the most part, he is alone with his thoughts, without strong connections to any other characters.

Because of this, one develops an unhealthy concern for the puppy he adopts. Might it fall into the hands of the Catcher? And the Catcher himself is much more interesting than Joseph--is this a real little boy, a ghost, a devil? When the main character fades into the background and one finds himself reading quickly through paragraphs for some further mention of a puppy and a demon-child, something in the delicate balance of plot and character and style is askew.

It must be said that the book has a terrific ending. When all the unraveling is in the process of occurring, one is enthralled. Joseph is more in the world, dealing directly with the Catcher and with his life's work, then, and the reader finally discovers how much of the plot has been Joseph's febrile imaginings and how much has truly been magical happenstance. This is when Prantera is best. When she is being tricky with her narrator, trying to remind her audience that she knows she's creating a dainty artificial mechanism, and allowing Joseph to sit still and ponder, the novel is weakest. When she sets her characters free in her plot, allows them to actively pursue their obsessions, this book becomes both compelling and delightful.

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