In Search of the Lady Lion Tamer by George Blagowidow (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $15.95)
The world is certainly diverse. The human mind is entirely peculiar. There's no point in setting up expectations about anything. Take, for instance, "In Search of the Lady Lion Tamer." Think first about its author, George Blagowidow. He was, he has declared in a recent interview, a teen-ager in World War II, born and reared in the little Polish town of Czestochowa. According to his own account, he spent the war years "lamming it from place to place and changing names." Moving around, he has said, "was the best way to survive, which may be why I developed a love and appreciation for travel."
From everything we hear about this particular time slot and piece of European geography, we have been led to believe that those were awful years. This is, after all, the literary geography of Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird," one of the most horrifying and poignant accounts of war, torment and human anguish in the history of the printed word.
But have you ever met people who just seem to roll through anguish, like a bright-red rubber ball? Everyone else is crying and dying and murdering and scheming and suffering, but the rubber-ball person is filing his or her nails or watching some game on TV or telling a silly joke?
Put another way, while Arthur Miller is writing "Death of a Salesman," the rubber-ball person, dealing with the same material, is putting together "The Music Man," comparing housewives to chickens: "Pick a little, talk a little . . . pick pick pick, talk a lot, pick a little more," and having a wonderful time.
George Blagowidow goes very easy on the suffering in "In Search of the Lady Lion Tamer." When it comes to suffering, he's interested in how not to do it. (Which is probably the real subject of this book.) First of all, Blagowidow posits, what is the antidote to, the opposite of, war? Love, of course, or maybe just sex. Keeping your mind on the ladies will certainly keep your mind off the bombs. Ladies, therefore, become his plot.
The novel begins in a fuzzy "present." Jan Majeski drifts into an art gallery in Paris on a spring afternoon, finds a circus poster of a gorgeous lady lion tamer and immediately falls hopelessly in love. He promptly repairs to the apartment of his mistress--who has been slaving all afternoon on the perfect bouillabaisse--and tells her all about his new romantic enslavement. She takes it in stride, tells her ex-husband about it, they all join in the discussion, and it becomes evident that Jan will never be happy again until he tracks down this elusive beauty.
Now, just because the author feels like it, he has his hero come to the conclusion that the best way to find this poster girl is to track down the five childhood friends--Arthur, Romek, Kurt, Michael and Bogdan--he grew up with in the little Polish village of Czestochowa during the years of World War II, when his hometown was occupied first by the Nazis, then by the Russians. Who were the ideal women of his five childhood chums? Why were these women loved? And will they offer any clues about the woman with whom Jan himself has become so infatuated?
There follow five stories--which, depending on your mood, you'll find either sappy or funny or offensive or charming. Also, depending on your point of view, or your level of equanimity and your eye for the profound, you'll either see them as a dizzy treatise on "romantic love," a fairly fatuous set of fables about national differences or a sophisticated treatment on how to triumph over Angst , alienation, terror.
We already know about the food-oriented, businesslike, bourgeoise-French sex life Jan has been carrying on. But then he tracks down his first friend, originally Zdzislaw Drzwicki, now in America under the name of Arthur C. Wicke Jr. Is this how you deal with heartbreak--forget your origins, pretend it never happened? Arthur's great love says no, and reminds him to speak Polish.
Romek's great love was Hitler's mistress. How did Romek deal with this? By telling silly jokes. Very silly jokes.
Kurt was on the wrong side during the war, working for the Nazis, exterminating Gypsies. But it develops that he met a Gypsy woman who taught him honor, forgave him, and let him forgive himself.
Michael, at 9, was carted off by intellectual parents to a remote resort where they neglected him in order to talk about art. But the woman next door--a great cook and wonderful mother whose favorite activities were running naked through the woods and having sex with 9-year-olds--gave the poor little tyke a reason to live.
All these women have dustings of freckles on their arms and necks, and cornflower blue eyes. They're all wildly brave, equal to any occasion and so plumb batty that the world, in its most nightmarish aspects, doesn't faze them. In the final story, in that Polish town, Bogdan, a starving teen-ager, falls in love with a young Russian teacher, a member of the occupation, who distractedly traces etymologies, even in the midst of sex. Words are everything to her--words and young Bogdan. If the Soviet Union and the United States eventually want to square off and blow up the world, if Europe gets squished, who cares? Love, food, jokes and silliness will find a way to survive.
There's no way of telling whether you'll like "The Lady Lion Tamer" or not. That totally depends on how seriously you take the world on the day you read it.