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Book Review : Novel Pits Commissar Vs. Church

September 15, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Color of Blood by Brian Moore (William Abrahams/Dutton: $16.95, 181 pages)

In a fictional Eastern European country that is Poland in all but name, two men ride two antagonistic tigers and try to prevent disaster.

One is Cardinal Bem, leader of the church and symbol of the passionate religious and national feelings of the people. The other is Gen. Urban, prime minister and a man only very provisionally trusted by the Soviet Union to keep the country in line and spare them the need to use tanks.

The setting for Brian Moore's new novel is the paradox of complicity that blurs the confrontation of two irreconcilable enemies who realize that action demands a price neither is willing to pay. We think of it as a feature of Poland's peculiar situation, but it is implicit in the entire East-West standoff.

"The Color of Blood" is a nicely convoluted political thriller; it is also a portrait of a tormented churchman trying to balance his temporal and religious responsibilities. As the first, it is intelligent and sometimes enthralling; as the second, it tends to be stiff and glib.

Cardinal Bem, riding in his chauffeured limousine and reading a meditation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, is overtaken by a car whose passenger points a pistol at him. The

cardinal's chauffeur swerves into the other vehicle; he and the gunman are killed. The cardinal, thrown clear, is stunned; the other driver, a woman, is injured but escapes.

Late that night, armed men in the uniform of the Security Police come to the cardinal's palace and remove him to a secluded hiding place in the country. There, the commandant, wearing a police colonel's insignia, tells him that right-wing Catholic extremists have attempted to kill him in order to stir up a revolt and that he is being held for his own protection until the plotters are caught.

There are some odd discrepancies. Why is the cardinal not permitted to communicate with the Minister of Religious Affairs, a man who has worked to keep the perennial church-party enmity within the bounds of rough compromise?

Intransigent Archbishop

Furthermore, he and the authorities have received word that an intransigent archbishop, defying his authority, is preparing to issue an inflammatory call for resistance at a forthcoming religious festival. Cardinal Bem insists to his captors that he must be released so that he can work to prevent such a thing; he finds them curiously unresponsive.

One of the strengths of "The Color of Blood" is its plot, and it would be wrong to disclose its details, among them the precise identity and motives of the cardinal's guards. Suffice it to say that there is a genuine plot, which includes churchmen and armed right-wing activists, to stir up a massive Catholic protest and to neutralize Cardinal Bem as the only man who can stop it. And that he escapes, determined to prevent what he sees as a suicidal confrontation.

Much of the book is devoted to a taut account of Bem's efforts to evade both the authorities and the conspirators as he travels about, hitchhiking, riding in trucks and sleeping in a derelicts' camp under a bridge. He is trying to get word to the churchmen he trusts--the fact that he doesn't know whom to trust increases the suspense--and to the powerful underground labor movement, which has been told that the protest has his blessing and which is reluctantly prepared to join in.

Police Catch Him

After a police patrol catches him, there is a meeting with Gen. Urban; they were schoolmates at the same Jesuit school and once again find themselves in a union of purposes. Just as the cardinal has to head off confrontation on one side, Urban is trying to withstand Soviet and hard-line pressures for an immediate crackdown. Neither man can entirely trust his own subordinates; neither entirely trusts the other, but both are obliged to.

It is a skillfully written scene; and so is Moore's portrait of Jop, the underground labor leader who is modeled on Lech Walesa and is as much of an instrument of larger forces as are the cardinal and the prime minister.

"He was no longer a worker, nor ever again would be," Moore writes. "He was now Jop the actor, doomed to play out his life's role as unofficial spokesman for the workers of this land, a man always waiting in the wings for the hot lights and the television cameras, the massed throngs, the cheers, the hands clutching at him as he passes through the packed union hall: a role not entirely different from that of a prelate in crimson silks."

Complex Compromises

This may sound cynical, but I don't think it is intended to be. Moore is fascinated by the complex compromises that political passions lead to when they do not lead to catastrophe. Perhaps his fascination leads him to shortchange the complexity. The religious and national convictions with which Cardinal Bem is trying to deal are curiously simplified by his reflection that they may be merely a means of striking at political enemies.

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