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Of Noah and the Worm : A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10 1/2 CHAPTERS by Julian Bonds (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95; 309 pp.)

October 15, 1989

The woodworm turns up elsewhere, notably as the defendant in a medieval trial at Besancon. An infested chair collapsed in a village church during the visit of the bishop, who was grievously injured in the fall. Basing himself on historical cases, Barnes writes of the arguments advanced for excommunication of the culprits, and the defense offered by a court-appointed Advocate of the Insects.

As for Noah, he reappears directly or indirectly in other stories, many of them set at sea. Barnes retells the story of the "St. Louis," a German passenger liner carrying Jewish refugees from Hitler in 1939. Cuba refused landing rights; so did the United States and several other countries. Eventually, the passengers were divided up among England, Belgium, Holland and France.

It is a dark variation on the Noah theme. Humanity flees the deluge to find--in the case of those who went to the Continent--not deliverance, but, with the Nazi invasions coming shortly after, a new destruction.

There are other variations. The most moving is "The Survivor." A young woman in Australia who has tracked the spread of nuclear contaminations since childhood takes her husband's boat and puts out to sea with two cats. The story is like a hallucination. She is, perhaps, rescued; or perhaps she lands on an island, a Pacific Ararat. There, not humanity but the two cats propagate and make a new beginning of the race.

"The Survivor" is Barnes at his most successful: an anarchic, entirely original whirlwind of the real and the visionary. We are tumbled amid the writer's humor, anger, irony, homely invention and a large lament for the cycle of human endeavor that dreams, corrupts what it dreams of, and dreams again.


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