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IN BRIEF

Fiction

March 08, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

THE WIND MONKEY AND OTHER STORIES by Leo Berenstain (Random House: $18; 221 pp.) . In these richly textured and authoritative stories, Leo Berenstain brings Indonesia to life for us--at least the cultural borderland where "expats" and natives coexist. Berenstain seems to know it all: the oil-company enclaves, the tourist hotels, the big-city slums, the remote villages, the tangle of ethnicity and religion that's as dense as the jungle.

Berenstain's strengths are so formidable that it's easy to shrug off his weaknesses. His descriptive powers, his ability to present exotic information rapidly and clearly, make us forget that some of these eight long tales are melodramas, and others too slight to justify their full-dress treatment. It's such a relief to encounter Western characters in fiction about the Third World who speak the native languages, who try to understand their hosts--and occasionally succeed--that we don't mind that some of these same characters are merely lenses we look through, with little color of their own.

At his best, Berenstain is very good indeed. In two stories, at least, his protagonists measure up to their surroundings. "Lasmi" follows an Indonesian woman through her yearning childhood and unhappy marriage to the moment when, shaken by crisis and no longer young, she agrees to go off with a foreigner. And the title story--about a young American scientist whose two years' work in the jungle is voided when his native helpers, for mystical reasons, steal one of the monkeys he's been studying--has that rarest of combinations: the tang of adventure and true spiritual weight.

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