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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 09, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

OCTOBER, EIGHT O'CLOCK by Norman Manea , translated from the Romanian by Cornelia Golna, Anselm Hollo, Mara Soceanu Vamos, Max Blyleben, Marguerite Dorian and Elliott B. Urdang (Grove Weidenfeld: $18.95; 224 pp.) Nobody should have a life like the autobiographical hero of these 15 stories by Norman Manea. At age 5, he is interned in a concentration camp in the Ukraine. He sees relatives die of hunger and disease, and nearly dies himself. The Nazis gone, he returns to Romania, where behind a facade of postwar normality a communist dictatorship is hardening. As a youth, he is encouraged to spy on his classmates. As an adult, he finds love, work, nature and his sense of self all poisoned by the lethal lunacy of the Ceaucescu regime. By middle age, he has become a zombie.

Such a life, unfortunately, has been the lot of millions of people in the 20th Century. The literature of totalitarianism has taken many forms, and it's a measure of Manea's stature that he adds to this chorus of anguish a distinctly original voice--by turns rich, impressionistic, humorous and bleak.

Solzhenitsyn stiff-armed the beast, analyzed it with a cold and relentless anger. Manea presses us right up against its muzzle; its overall shape becomes a blur, but we can count individual hairs, smell its breath. The logic of these stories, like that of poetry, is emotional. Manea tells us what it's like to desire a sweater so much that it becomes a magical animal; what it's like to return to a world of stoves, weddings and candy that no words seem to fit; what it's like to be so deadened that only a near-drowning reawakens, briefly, a sense of life.

There's a little of Kafka here, a little of Cynthia Ozick, even a little of Varlam Shalamov, but Manea, in the end, stakes out his own territory. In the dead middle of that territory, at the heart of this book, is a story called "The Instructor." It's probably a great story. An elderly neighbor prepares the boy for his bar mitzvah just as he is becoming active in the Young Pioneers. Two ideologies--one old and shabby, one new and glamorous--contend for his soul. Manea tells us what it's like to hang in midair between them like an acrobat who, half deliberately, misses the next bar swinging his way and can only fall.

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