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Struck Down in Their Pride : THE TOWER STRUCK BY LIGHTNING by Fernando Arrabal; translated byAnthony Kerrigan (Viking: $16.95; 234 pp.)

November 06, 1988|James Ragan | Ragan, poet and author of "In the Talking Hours," directs USC's Professional Writing Program. His play, "Commedia," was staged in China last month. and

Upon hearing of Darwin's theory of natural selection, Aldous Huxley exclaimed, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of it myself!" One feels equally as skewed about the masterfully conceived conclusion of Fernando Arrabal's novel, "The Tower Struck by Lightning," a seriocomic chef-d'oeuvre of ideological intrigue set in the world of chess by Spain's leading avant-garde playwright. The abduction of Soviet Minister Isvoschikov, a symbolic checkmating in itself, is played out in parallel moves by the Swiss "revolutionary," Marc Amary, as he attempts to checkmate the Spaniard, Elias Tarsis, during the final match of the World Chess Championship.

The title, referring to a Tarot card depicting a column struck by lightning, denotes the danger to the human mind struck by excessive pride. In time, we discover which of the two obsessive egos is charged with the greater excess of past cruelties.

Tarsis feels intuitively that Amary is Isvoschikov's abductor. Amary's every move suggests the calculations of a "bloody robot," worthy only of a chess player or a terrorist. Systematically, Amary arrives at 54 seconds to 4, allows 10 seconds to seat himself, 20 seconds for noting the date and players' names, 10 for winding the official clocks, and the remaining seconds to arranging each of the 16 pieces "at the exact center, to the millimeter, of its square: the knights' heads lined up toward him (in adoration?). . . ."

Such "maniacal ceremonies" belie an "assassin's whims," Tarsis hypothecates. Enough to provoke a thirst for vengeance. Translator Anthony Kerrigan warns that Arrabal "takes an exceptional stance: He takes exception to everything." Religious and political ideologies are paralyzing forces prejudicing children with ambivalence toward innocence and cruelty. By evoking childhood emotions in Tarsis and Amary, Arrabal probes the fathoms of each player's sang-froid thoughts, erotic or profane.

At school, Tarsis cuffs and whips an obese French youth, El Frances, in a toilet during recess, rationalizing absurdly that the boy caused his father's death. El Frances is expelled while Tarsis, "punished" to study chess with Father Gregorio, incants, "Everything that stinks, . . . that's sick, . . . sordid, everything abject, can be summed up in one word . . . God!" He belches. Years later, after inexplicably beating his devoted lover, Nuria, he rationalizes, "everyone had always betrayed him . . . death, itself, when it carried off his father."

In Arrabal's world, absurdity and iconoclasm go hand in hand. Characters react like children unheeding of their cruelty because they lack understanding of moral laws. They afflict pain as the consequence of society's perniciousness in abandoning them.

The orphaned Amary murders his insane, alcoholic mother for confessing he was born in an outhouse. To survive the resulting "autogestation" and the chorus of inner voices (The Kid, Mickey, El Loco etc.) assailing his subconscious, he avenges grown-ups for having "no integrity . . . no honor." He joins the terrorist Dimitrov Faction, seduced by the tale of two Japanese revolutionaries on trial for kissing, "condemned to let themselves die in the snow, an act carried out with revolutionary stoicism."

Arrabal's indictment of fanaticism--Christendom's or Marxist--succeeds in rivaling "two antagonistic world concepts" with Tarsis and Amary as their avenging angels. Tarsis' decision in the final match to avenge Nuria, victim of terrorist sabotage by Amary's Marxist Comite, is the final recourse to justice in a world devoid of "goodness."

When Amary's hostage demands require that Moscow bomb the oil wells of Saudi Arabia, Tarsis recognizes Amary's obsession to precipitate "a world war leading to a 'desert,' to a tabula rasa," allowing the construction of a brave "New Society." In the end, betrayal abounds. While Amary expedites one murder of a head of state, literally, and Tarsis attempts another, figuratively, on the chess board, we postulate which player will lose his own head next. Pride's betrayal of the mind with its self-accusatory inner personae and Tower-of-Babel voices cackling in judgment is the final checkmate, the tower struck by lightning.

One needn't be a passionate chess player to engage in the game play diagrammed throughout the dips and turns of Arrabal's munificent plot. With Arrabal, a former chess champion, we play along, anticipating both the chess and the abductor's strategies. Wildly exotic, the book merges the provocative principles of abstract theater into the free fantasy of prose, brilliantly executed by Spain's grand master of the Absurd.

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