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The Knowledge of Men : THE LAWS, By Connie Palmen . Translated by Richard Huijing (George Braziller: $18.50; 200 pages)

January 23, 1994|Ursula Hegi | Ursula Hegi's latest novel, " Floating in My Mother's Palm," is set in postwar Germany. A sequel, " Stones in the River," is forthcoming

This first novel by Dutch author Connie Palmen won the 1992 European Novel of the Year award and sold over 150,000 copies in the Netherlands alone.

Set in Amsterdam in the 1980s, "The Laws" explores the search of a philosophy student, Marie Deniet, for her personal vision. In a voice that is cocky, curious, defiant, perceptive and daring, Marie begins to reveal herself. There are certain things she knows about herself: "I can only lie when I have prepared myself for it days in advance"; "I am used to having secrets"; "You must do the thing you fear, for that's the safest." She knows she wants to write books. And she is studying philosophy "in order to learn to live."

Although at times "The Laws" reads more like a philosophy text than fiction, relying on explanations and theories, it is successful as a novel because Palmen establishes a sense of adventure and discovery right from the beginning.

Marie tries to learn exclusively from men about what it means to be human. Her opinion of women is low: Based on her own uneasiness when around women, she believes that they, too, will only say words to her that she wants to hear. When it comes to Marie's perceptions about what it means to be female or male, the author has drawn rigid gender boundaries, and it is not surprising that Marie's conclusions about what it means to be a woman--to bear children, to exist within the love of a man--are naive and limited.

The truth, she thinks, comes from men. They are the ones who make the laws, write books. Her apartment is filled with the books of men. But she wants to get beyond printed words, into a living, breathing philosophy, and her urge to know and understand leads her to seven different men, most of them substantially older than she.

With each of these men, Marie enters his territory, his power, ready to have him change her entire life. "I will listen to him for as long as it takes until I know everything about this way of looking and judging." She likes to come to him as if totally untouched by previous mentors and, like a chameleon, imitate his thought patterns, his physical movements, his style of clothes.

The seven chapters of the novel are named after the men: the astrologer relies on signs outside himself for decisions and calls her a "philosophical whore-angel"; the epileptic's most passionate relationship is with his illness; the philosopher teaches her that "to know how to die is the final secret of every initiation"; the grotesque priest shares her interest in the link between literature and philosophy and seduces her by evoking her pity and revulsion; the married physicist becomes her lover and teaches her about the "law of increasing chaos"; the artist draws her from her intellectual shell and becomes the target of her obsessive love; and the psychiatrist guides her in her search for her core as she finally rejects "too many masters, too many languages."

The most fascinating of her mentors is the epileptic who felt fragmented until he was seized by his illness and became "the focal point of his own life and his principal object of study." What draws him to Marie is her ability to listen with a passion that matches his own when it comes to his epilepsy.

Her childhood has trained her for absolutes. Raised as a Catholic with the capacity to embrace one concept totally, Marie left her earliest belief just as totally when, as a 14-year-old, she read Sartre for the first time.

But gradually her old ways of learning no longer apply. "My spirit has been raped in fact. And I just let it happen, invited it. . . . I want to recover from the thoughts of others." By dismissing other women, Marie has invalidated herself. When she is ready to confront that emptiness with the psychiatrist, she can begin the true journey.

What is most interesting about this journey of knowledge is that, ultimately, Marie needs to meet up with the woman in herself. All along her role models have been men. She has tried to think in the most traditional of men's approaches, to compartmentalize information. Her ultimate frustration and triumph are that she absorbs these insights as a woman, bringing the different strands intoone.

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