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Book Review : A Bloodless Collection of the Literature of Revenge


Dark Arrows: Great Stories of Revenge, edited by Alberto Manguel (Clarkson N. Potter: $10.95, paperback; 314 pages)

"Dark Arrows" is a book about revenge--the vengeance of cuckolded husbands and spiteful children and oppressed peasants and even bereaved cats. And yet, for all the pleasurable storytelling to be found in the 19 tales assembled here, "Dark Arrows" is strangely attenuated and subdued, especially for a book whose subject is the most violent of human emotions.

Alberto Manguel, editor of "Dark Arrows," reminds us that revenge can be far more subtle and complex than we might suspect from watching, say, "Death Wish." "The story of revenge allows the writer to explore the human soul upon the battlefield, its skirmishes, treasons, heroics, shifting sides and alliances," writes Manguel, "and in the end leaving unanswered the question of who is victorious, who is right and wrong."

Manguel has brought together some of the enduring figures of English and American letters (Kipling, Faulkner, Saki, Poe, Stevenson); a few faded literary celebrities, including Bram Stoker and Lord Dunsany; contemporary writers as disparate in style and intention as E. L. Doctorow and Frederick Forsyth, and a sampling of Third World novelists, including Jose Luis Borges and several less prominent authors whose work is offered in English translation for the first time. Entirely aside from the subject matter, then, "Dark Arrows" is a intriguing sampler of prose from many epochs, many cultures.

19th-Century Tale

For example, Heinrich Von Kleist's early 19th-Century story, "The Foundling," is a baroque tale of the betrayal of a generous benefactor by his shameless adopted son, full of tragic irony, but the story is rendered in the spare, solemn, almost ritualistic style of a Shakespearean plot synopsis. Faulkner's much-anthologized "A Bear Hunt"--the unlikely story of a black man's revenge for the cruelty of a white man--is a tall tale that owes a certain debt to Joel Chandler and Mark Twain, but it's also an authentic example of Faulkner's prose style--the shifting of the narrator's voice, the casual brutality of the Old South, the insistent rendering of Southern dialect ("They took de lant'un en de gun away frum him en took him up pon topper de mound en talked de Injun language at him fer a while."). Doctorow's "Willi"--the bitter and baffled reminiscence of a child's traumatic encounter with his mother's sexuality--is the most contemporary in tone and treatment; at the same time, it's the most deeply moving story in the collection, thanks to Doctorow's sense of psychoanalytic and historical doom.

Manguel, born in Argentina and now living in Canada, gives us two Latin American writers whose work appears for the first time in English translation--Isidoro Blaisten's "Uncle Facundo," the story of a family reunion with an exotic uncle whose liberating influence turns out to be fatal, and Edmundo Valades' "Permission for Death Is Granted," a Brechtian tale of class struggle drawn from the Mexican Revolution. The Brazilian novelist Rachel de Queiroz tells the story of "Metonymy, or the Husband's Revenge," a dark comic story of vengeance extracted by a jealous husband from a curious surrogate for his wife's lover. And even though Manguel declares that "the theme of revenge is not popular in Canadian literature," he includes Ken Mitchell's "The Great Electrical Revolution," a good-natured memoir of the Depression era and a feisty Irish grandpa with a scheme for outwitting the Moose Jaw Light and Power Co.

Still, I was surprised at Manguel's curious taste in the literature of revenge--"Dark Arrows" does not explore the darker reaches of what Bacon called "wild justice," the visceral acts of vengeance that seek to redress an insult or an injustice. Rather, Manguel seems to prefer stories that emphasize whimsy over tragedy, cleverness over passion. Thus, for example, Lord Dunsany's "The Pirate of Round Pond" features a gang of endearing schoolyard buccaneers who contrive to outfit a toy boat with live miniature torpedoes and then terrorize the waters of the neighborhood sailing pond in a kind of toothless class warfare that turns on escalating technologies.

Antique Technology

Kipling's "Dayspring Mishandled" is more impressively narrated, but the story depends no less on technology, albeit the charmingly antique technology of early book making. The target of Kipling's well-wrought vengeance is a self-styled Chaucer expert--a pompous, callous but essentially harmless old fool--who stumbles into an ingenious trap that has been artfully baited with "a fragment of a hitherto unknown Canterbury Tale."

Every detail is convincing, every turn of the plot is utterly credible, and the act of vengeance is wickedly clever (and, it turns out, double-edged); according to Manguel, Kipling "confessed to actually have forged a manuscript--paper, ink and text--in order to know exactly the mechanics he describes." But Kipling's story suffers from the same lack of passion that seems to afflict the rest of "Dark Arrows"--it is elegant, beguiling and rich with irony, and yet the whole affair is surprisingly bloodless.

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