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BOOK REVIEW : A Fabulous, Romantic Look at Empire : LOVE AND EMPIRE By Erik Orsenna Translated from French by Jeremy Leggadt; HarperCollins $24.95, 496 pages


A kingdom is a limited and sometimes manageable political order, with territorial definition and a certain cultural unity. An empire, by contrast, is a limitless idea of order, a dream that comes true once in a while by accident but doesn't last.

In modern times, it was only the British, dreamiest of nations, who were any good at empire, and only for a while. The French, Germans, Italians and Japanese all tried, with very moderate success in the first instance and not at all in the others.

There is a notion of empire floating around this novel by the French writer Erik Orsenna. The hero's grandmother is the widow of a man involved in Napoleon III's disastrous attempt to set up a protege as emperor of Mexico. His father is last seen as an old man, peddling bicycles to the Vietminh rebels toward the end of France's colonial sway in Vietnam. The hero himself travels in South America as a rubber expert for a different kind of empire: The French tire industry.

Appropriately to this approximate theme, the book is a dreamy sprawl; a long ramble through the life of its protagonist, whose first name is Gabriel and whose last is the same as the author's. The reason for this, whether Erik Orsenna is using his family as fiction, is not indicated or apparent to an American reader. Perhaps it is apparent to readers in France, where "Love and Empire" received the Goncourt Prize. The reason for this is not apparent, either.

The life and loves of Gabriel are related in a style that suggests, on one hand, the philosophical jokiness, the game-playing with plot and characters, characteristic of Milan Kundera. On the other hand, it has a note of the fabulous, a hint of a mythical sweep that sweeps up comic particularities, reminiscent of the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Literarily unfashionable it's not.

Better, perhaps, if it were. Under the high jokiness, the elegant myth-work--Gabriel is in love all his life with two sisters, Clara and Anne, who would have a better chance of seeming alive if they didn't also have to represent Eternal Ambivalence--there is some entrancing realistic reportage struggling to get out.

There is, for example, the evolution of the rubber industry. Erik apprentices himself young, at the turn of the century. (Orsenna gives him a mythic rubber ball that he plays with at key moments through his life, but never mind.) He visits the rubber plantations in Brazil during the slump before World War I; and there are bits of engrossing detail about the rubber economy, the expatriate French, the Francophile Brazilians and travels in the jungle.

Later, there will be other oddly compelling details about tires, their transformation of war-waging and peacetime living, the use of car racing to promote them, the fierce competition in the 1920s and 1930s among the international tire makers and the efforts of Gabriel, working in London for the Free French, to secure rubber supplies for the allies from his old Brazilian associates.

There is a book about rubber here, had the author cared to write one. There is, in the chapters that describe the last days of the French in Vietnam, a second fascinating reportage. There is a third, suggesting the dream of Empire, in the misadventures of Gabriel's father working in the grandly futile 1930s Colonial Exhibition in Paris.

The literary embroidery that overlays this promising material has its bright spots. There is a comically absurd section in which Gabriel is sent by the French Foreign Ministry to lecture on Auguste Comte, the positivist philosopher, to the staff of the Brazilian Embassy in London. The French have a hidden motive--to fan Brazilian anger over the competition offered by rubber production in British-held Malaya.

When Clara, whom Gabriel has married and taken to Northeastern Brazil, leaves him, the latter sits without moving on his veranda for 93 days. Then a local hotel manager, having tried to rouse him by recounting the sexual activities of his guests, brings him a copy of Proust's "Swann's Way." Somehow or other, it provides a shot of energy, and Gabriel is cured.

There are other nice touches, but "Love and Empire" fails in its ambitions. Gabriel is a floating cobweb, he lacks the color, the emotional energy, the philosophical spark to propel such a book. The two sisters have a charm that is purely cosmetic; they need to be bewitching, and they are merely anxious.

The magics of a Kundera and a Garcia Marquez--very different, but both expansive, particular and with a high voltage of delight--are not easily available. Orsenna as a magician makes a poor job. Promising the rabbit trick, he stands on the stage and pulls gloves out of the hat. He saws a pencil in half. He makes a soap bubble disappear, right before our eyes.

Next: Judith Freeman reviews "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez (Alonguin Books of Chapel Hill).

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