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IN BRIEF

Fiction

May 12, 1991|Michael Harris

MENDELSSOHN IS ON THE ROOF by Jiri Weil , translated from the Czech by Marie Winn (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22.95; 211 pp.) . This is a Holocaust novel with a comic plot. The Nazis occupying Czechoslovakia discover that one of the statues atop the Prague concert hall is of a Jew, the composer Felix Mendelssohn. Hitler's viceroy, Reinhard Heydrich, orders it knocked down. But neither the petty German officials who receive the order nor the Czech workers assigned to the job know which statue is Mendelssohn's. Frantic to find out yet not reveal their ignorance, they commit a series of blunders that would be laughable if nearly everyone involved didn't die as a result.

Jiri Weil ("Life With a Star") experienced two deaths: a real one in 1959 and a fake suicide in 1942 that enabled him to escape the concentration camps. He spent the rest of the war hiding--and observing. "Mendelssohn Is on the Roof" is admirably lucid about how Nazi agencies organized mass murder and quarreled over the spoils. But its best descriptions are of Jews deluded by hope and corrupted by terror: a scholar forced to assemble a religious museum that will survive after all Jews are gone, an ex-furniture designer ordered to build a gallows, the former owner of a hardware store reduced to shoving people through the doors of the death trains.

Comedy is cruel: Like the Nazi apparatus, Weil's plot moves his characters around like pawns. At first he describes resistance only at a symbolic level: images of forests and rivers that contrast with petrifying illness, stone monuments and stony men (such as Heydrich). But when he goes beyond symbols and shows a few doomed, courageous people fighting the apparatus, the plot breaks down. Moral affirmation appears as a necessary flaw in a perfection that has become unbearable.

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