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BOOK REVIEW : Looks and Action, but Dead Characters : THE VISION OF ELENA SILVES by Nicholas Shakespeare Alfred A. Knopf $19.95, 250 pages

December 06, 1990|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

A somnolent town up the headwaters of the Amazon. The same film--"The Daughter of the Rubber Man"--has played the local movie house every week for 20 years. The bishop dodders in his palace, gloating over the thousands of crosses and crucifixes in his collection. Three old men sit each day in the square, commenting on whatever happens or has happened. One is the author of thousands of pages about the town's history; the second is the consumer of thousands of bottles of the local firewater, the third is the lover, at least mentally, of thousands of women.

We think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and his magical back lands. But the town--Belen--is in Peru, not Colombia. A guerrilla movement resembling the Shining Path is active all over the country; one of its leaders is a local man, grandson of a Chinese immigrant. The movement's supreme leader is a puritanical recluse; a Marxist professor with an awful skin condition and a weakness for Frank Sinatra tapes.

"The Vision of Elena Silves" tells of two lovers separated by two opposite idealisms and rebounding into the arid extremes of each one. On the point of making love one evening, Elena has a religious vision. Crowds gather, miracles are, or seem to be, performed, a shrine is built, and Elena retreats to a convent. Gabriel Rondon Lung, her almost-lover, retreats to the Andes where he learns Quechua, works with the Indians and, over two decades, helps his peculiar leader, Ezequiel, build up a guerrilla movement.

At the end, Elena and Gabriel flee back to each other. Permanent revolution and cloistered religion are, as the book sees it, abstract and manipulative. They do not save their subjects; they repress them. In the last pages, Elena and Gabriel are sighted by a traveler in a remote jungle clearing, helping the Indians put up a building and laughing. "When she laughed, it was with her whole body," the author writes.

Literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, Nicholas Shakespeare takes what might be thought of as a traditionally English attitude toward foreign worlds. He is fascinated by the exotica; his pages are filled with Spanish words and phrases, even common ones with common English equivalents. It is one thing for his characters to drink masato , a specifically Peruvian tipple. But why should they eat pescado when they might just as well eat fish?

The atmosphere of the backwater town is vividly rendered. The history of three generations of the Silves family in the Peruvian jungle makes an absorbing and diverting story. Gabriel's escape from prison--another member of the guerrilla movement takes his place--and his search for Elena, who has disappeared after her own escape from the convent, is engrossing and often exciting.

Shakespeare has written a readable book. He gets the appearances and the stories. He gets the look, the actions and the words of his characters; he gets little of what moves them. Only when they are dead does he manage something of life. The most tangible and believable personages in the novel are Elena's grandparents, who come out of Portugal to settle the back lands; and her parents, who continued their work.

The trembly and venal bishop, the crooked police chief with his Ray Ban sunglasses, the cocaine-trafficking merchant, a youthful poet and friend of Gabriel's, who is killed by the police, a grimly sexy woman who is Gabriel's fellow-guerrilla, are colorful but flat. There is a little more substance to an American priest who works humbly with the Indians and avoids fanaticism, and to the weirdly erratic figure of Ezequiel. But even these two are disconnected from the forces that drive them.

The disconnection is most apparent and damaging in the depiction of Gabriel and Elena. Each has given 20 years to a severe and punishing belief. Shakespeare conveys none of the strength and allure of the two opposite beliefs, but only the distortions they bring about. Failing to give us an understanding of those beliefs, he cannot make us understand his two characters. We see them as young near-lovers; we see them again 20 years later, burnt-out, but starting over as lusty and pagan and full of laughter. (I suppose that is another traditionally English notion, in literature, if not practice.)

Shakespeare may regard Latin American revolution and religion as silly superstitious usages, but to treat them that way takes all weight and substance from Elena and Gabriel. As a crowning absurdity, we hear at the end that Elena's vision was not religious at all, but simply an inflamed image of Gabriel, who, at that moment, was trying to make love to her. For this to impel her to proclaim a miracle and retreat to the cloister for 20 years makes a mockery of the characters the author is trying to give life to.

Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "Scandalous Risks" by Susan Howatch (Alfred A. Knopf).

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