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IN BRIEF

Fiction

July 25, 1993|DICK RORABACK

THE SWEDISH CAVALIER by Leo Perutz (Arcade: $19.95; 192 pp.) A little Tom Jones, a lot of Robin Hood, a dollop of Dickens and a dash of Dostoevsky. Mix vigorously, and what you have is a passable take on "The Swedish Cavalier." This is an adventure story that loses little--maybe even gains--for its time span, 1701-1710, and its setting: Pomerania, Silesia, Saxony, Brandenburg, Brabant and Bohemia. Noise offstage is Sweden's Charles XII having at Russia's Peter the Great; a war that underlines the career choices of an underclass that is poor but dishonest: sign up with Charles' army and freeze in Muscovy; surrender to the gallows, quicker but warmer; put in nine barely bearable years in the forges and foundries "ruled jointly by Prometheus and the arrogant bishop known as 'the Devil's ambassador,' " by appointment to whichever king is most in need of guns. Star of this lusty tale is a merry, ingenious miscreant progressively known as "The Thief," "The Desecrator," "The Swedish Nobleman" and "The Nameless Man"--probably the most memorable creation of Leo Perutz, Czech-born author of definitive adventures. Perutz died in 1957; "Cavalier" was written in 1936. Its reissue is a blessing to those who hanker for the days when honey came in firkins, tocsins were sounded and bodkins were odd.

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