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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : A 50-Year Nightmare of Carnal and Political Betrayal : BONE TO THE BONE, by Nathan Shaham translated by Dalya Bilu , Grove Press $19.95, 352 pages

January 19, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Avigdor Berkov, the afflicted hero of "Bone to the Bone," is a kind of 20th-Century Rip Van Winkle.

According to novelist Nathan Shaham, Berkov was born in Ukraine before the Bolshevik Revolution, emigrated to Palestine in the '20s, then returned to the Soviet Union. By the time we encounter him in the pages of "Bone to the Bone," Berkov is back in Israel, an old man who has awakened from a half-century-long nightmare to find himself among strangers.

"They're willing to take me back into the bosom of the happy family that was immune to the revolutionary germ," he says of the family that he left behind in Israel, "on the condition that I give up any claim to being an honest man."

But truth telling is the whole point of "Bone to the Bone," which takes the form of an extended memoir by Berkov, who describes himself as "a bankrupt Party member, a father who betrayed his trust, an old pioneer whose world is in ruins." And Berkov's story is told in the sharp, clear, insistent voice of a man who holds himself and the world accountable for every failing.

"Testimony, summing up, the moral of my story, bits of history, reflection," Berkov says in describing his memoir, "an indictment of the people who distorted the revolution."

"Bone to the Bone" is an oblique and ironic love story, and Berkov gives us glimpses of Vera, the woman he loved and lost in Palestine, and Nina, the woman he loved and lost in the Soviet Union. Berkov seeks out the two women--and the children he fathered with each of them--on his return to Israel, and it is the encounter with his old lovers that drags him out of a bitter reverie and forces him to confront an uncomforting reality.

"I go over and over her words in my head, like a boy after a first lovers' meeting," he writes of his reunion with Nina. "Every word with its secret signals. What she really wanted to say. What had prevented her from saying it."

But "Bone to the Bone" also tells us another kind of love story--the "tragic love of the revolution" that manifested itself in both Palestine and the Soviet Union. We see Berkov as an idealistic young man who yearns for the pure and elevating experience of true revolution--and we see too how his heart is broken as he comes to realize how the revolution was betrayed, corrupted and degraded by the very men who served in its vanguard.

At one chilling moment in "Bone to the Bone," these two parallel love stories collide with each other, and suddenly Berkov's eyes are opened to the depth of the betrayal, which turns out to be both carnal and political.

"Many mysteries were illuminated," Berkov declares, forcing himself to confront the ugliest truth of all. "A new light was shed on acts, gestures, words. And everything connected up in one web."

Shaham is a distinguished Israeli novelist, and "Bone to the Bone" has been expertly translated from the original Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. But, significantly, Berkov finds himself ill at ease in the modern Jewish state; he is very much a creature of the Old World, haunted by the ghosts of history, aching with the pain of old wounds and compelled to confess all of his failings.

"I think it was Turgenev who said that the Russians are a nation of liars who spend their lives yearning for the absolute truth," Berkov reflects. "In this respect, I am a true Russian."

Like many honest seekers after social revolution in the Soviet Union under Stalin, Berkov ended up in the Gulag. Torture and slave labor, as we discover, left him not only emotionally scarred but almost literally deformed. He still seeks a kind of redemption in love and memory, but he simply cannot forget what he has experienced and survived.

"I . . . like to look at the faces of passersby," he writes of himself. "I think this hobby would annoy them if they knew what I was looking for. I try to guess how they would behave under stress, in conditions of hunger or torture. This is a bitter and unpleasant habit that I cannot break."

One who has been tortured, a Holocaust survivor once wrote, remains tortured. And "Bone to the Bone," in a quiet and compelling way, shows us exactly what he meant.

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