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BOOK REVIEW : Building Trust in Glasnost of the Heart : SAFE CONDUCT, by Elizabeth Benedict , Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21, 230 pages


In her third and very readable novel, "Safe Conduct," Elizabeth Benedict makes the Cold War a metaphor for the battle between the sexes. (And in the novel, as in history, cold can mean hot, even steamy.)

Kate Lurie, who tells the story, is a documentary filmmaker in her 30s. She speaks, hesitantly, of a childhood with an alcoholic, emotionally distant father and a lonely, disappointed mother. Kate has learned to use her camera as a form of self-defense; it is her "safe conduct through war zones, the bulletproof glass partition between me and the hazards of real life."

Kate has married an older man, Mac, whose work history encompasses various federal assignments, including a stint in Leningrad in the Brezhnev 1970s, where he carried on a love affair with a Russian beauty named Lida. By the time Kate meets and marries Mac, Lida and Leningrad are a part of his past. He is now a man in mourning for his son killed in an accident, and Kate is moved by "an openness to the way he expressed his grief."

Yet no one in this novel is truly open, not even Mac. Nearly everyone here is quick to lie and even quicker to assume that others are lying. As in a time of espionage, there are intrigues and counterintrigues. Whose motives are political, whose personal? And even latter-day KGB surveillance operators could learn a thing or two from Kate Lurie. Or maybe they already have, since her insistence on documenting everything is rendered interestingly untrustworthy by her obsessive fictionalizing of events she has not herself been a part of or witness to. (The KGB has never balked at fictionalizing.)

En route to Turkey to finish work on a film, Kate, Mac and Kate's cameraman, Eric, stop over briefly in Brussels. There they are met by none other than Lida, who is now married and living in Paris.

In Kate's eyes, Lida has come on the scene "in Technicolor, CinemaScope, Sensurround, a hundred times larger than life." Kate is afraid that Mac's passion for Lida will reassert itself and that she will lose him, confirming that she has never really won him.

The book's tactic is to bring old secrets into the open, all those dark alliances and betrayals fostered by modern politics and brought into the light of glasnost --a glasnost of the heart. In Brussels, the past will peel off layers, leaving the characters free, at last, to live in the present.

This is a romance, then, and both politics and the art of filmmaking serve as a backdrop to the play, which is a story of men and women coming to trust one another.

Perhaps the reader wants to ask why Mac recounted his affair to Kate in terms as graphic as photography. And why Kate has married a man who thinks it all right to do this. Why the lost figures of Mac's first family and dead son remain in shadow; why Mac and Lida mistook what seems very much like garden-variety lust for abiding love; and why, finally, Lida is beyond both Mac and Kate's fantasies.

Though these are unlighted hollows that, if explored, might have made the narrative both rougher and deeper, Benedict's efficient prose propels us through a brightly lit series of scenic frames.

Pushing against the outer edges of these staged shots from inside is the story of Kate's extreme jealousy and destructive lack of faith in herself. A woman who replays her husband's long-ago affair in terrific detail, she may have acquired this habit from her mother, who describes her own wedding night to her daughter with similar self-humiliating notations. (These confidences "must have been her warnings, her bulletins from the front: This is marriage, these are men.")

Eventually, Kate is the woman who can insist that a cameraman shoot her husband's reunion with Lida so she will have a record of their facial expressions. If Kate considers herself a woman who is "sure of herself," what the reader is sure of is that Kate can be the "docu-director" from hell, definitely not someone you'd want to videotape your back-yard barbecue.

And it is, of course, that sharp eye--that "I"--that, as it succeeds in reflecting on itself, lets the reader see beneath and around all the political and emotional prevarications to the novel's truths. Take, for example, the vivid, telling truth of a nude prostitute posed in a storefront window:

"For a moment I thought she had outlined her veins on her breasts in blue, the way women did in ancient Egypt, but when I moved closer I saw it was the veins themselves, the blue-gray wild rivers of her breasts. . . . The truth is, I was thinking only of myself, and when she looked at me, really, it was two or three seconds at most, all that happened was I understood I was not the only one of us in pain." We are all casualties, and a novel that helps us to know this opens borders, brings down walls.

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