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FICTION

December 23, 1990|Michael Harris

THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM by Marek Halter, translated from the French by Lowell Bair (Arcade: $19.95; 374 pp.) . This tribal memoir in novelistic form is a sequel to "The Book of Abraham," the best-seller in which Marek Halter traced a Jewish family for nearly 2,000 years, from the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 to the Warsaw Ghetto. Here, Halter brings his story into the 1980s, continuing to assert that historical memory is indispensable for Judaism to survive.

As in "The Book of Abraham," Halter himself is one of his characters. Active in arranging peace talks between Israeli and Arab leaders, he also seeks the reasons for his cousin Hugo's assassination near Jerusalem in 1961. Hugo's death sends out tremors to family members in Paris, Moscow, New York and Buenos Aires; those tremors reveal that a web still connects them, despite vast differences in life style and politics. Another cousin, an Israeli intelligence officer, even suspects the Arab husband of a third cousin in the Soviet Union of complicity in the murder.

Halter is good at simplifying complex information. "The Children of Abraham" moves as fast as any conventional thriller. And, as in a thriller, Halter's relatives--representing "all the tendencies of Judaism"--have a knack for showing up in the most exciting places. Refuseniks stage a hunger strike in the office of the Soviet president. A girl radical is sucked into Argentina's "dirty war." The Israeli officer is wounded and his father killed in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. An American doctor is killed by Palestinians after one of the "Black September" plane hijackings in 1970; his widow and daughter are aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro, hijacked in 1985.

But simplification also has its drawbacks. In a thriller, the real people--politicians, generals--lend credibility to the made-up story. Here, the methods of popular fiction--the swift but flat prose, the derring-do, the peeks into characters' minds, the seemingly obligatory sex scenes--drain credibility from a story that is supposed to be mostly real.

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