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A Page-Turner That Asks the Big Moral Questions : FICTION : THE STATEMENT, By Brian Moore (Dutton: $22.95; 250 pp.)

June 23, 1996|Ruth Coughlin | Former Detroit News book editor Ruth Coughlin is also the author of "Grieving: A Love Story."

To say that Brian Moore's 18th novel is a thriller would be getting it only half right. To be sure, it is a story of the hunter and the hunted, with a plot as tautly pulled as piano wire. And yes, in the vernacular that currently describes contemporary fiction, "The Statement" is, in fact, a page-turner--a book you're guaranteed to read in one great gulp, fully satisfied by its spectacular and surprising conclusion.

More important, however, is Moore's exploration of some deeply disturbing moral questions. In a largely unjust world, he asks, just who, or what, is just? And upon whose moral authority, if such a thing exists, should we depend and be guided?

Set in the south of France in 1989, the story concerns one Pierre Brossard, a 70-year-old Frenchman twice condemned to death in absentia for his collaboration with the Nazis. For 44 years, he has been on the run and in hiding, protected both by the Catholic Church--whose ultra-conservative abbots offer him asylum in their monasteries because they believe he is contrite and "that God's mercy is superior to man's justice"--and by the French government itself.

Moore has based his novel on the real-life case of France's Paul Touvier, who after decades of eluding capture was sentenced in 1993 by a Versailles court to life imprisonment for wartime crimes. Yet the author brings an altogether different dimension to this tale: With the shrewd eye of a seasoned social observer and the finely honed skills of a superb novelist, Moore paints an unforgettable portrait of an unrepentant man who might possibly be the embodiment of pure evil.

As the novel begins, Brossard is being tracked by an assassin known only as R., whose mission, in addition to killing the Nazi collaborator, is to pin on the dead man's body the following statement, typed on a single sheet of paper: "COMMITTEE FOR JUSTICE FOR THE JEWISH VICTIMS OF DOMBEY. This man is Pierre Brossard . . . condemned to death in absentia by French courts, in 1944 and again in 1946, and further charged with a crime against humanity in the murder of 14 Jews at Dombey, Alpes-Maritimes, on June 15, 1944. After 44 years of deals, legal prevarications and the complicity of the Catholic Church in hiding Brossard, the dead are now avenged. This case is closed."

Still wily at 70 and with an uncanny awareness of knowing when he's being followed, Brossard murders the would-be assassin, as he does T., the next man sent to do the job. The inevitable questions arise: Who is sending these paid killers? And who sits on the "Committee for Justice"? Could it be the relatives of the 14 doomed men at Dombey? Or could it be, in the view of one of the right-wing abbots who protects Brossard, the devil?

All Brossard cares about is saving his own life. Traveling from monastery to monastery with his three suitcases, one of them laden with the Nazi memorabilia from which he hopes to profit, the despicable Brossard is in constant communication with his most powerful protector, Paris' retired chief of police, Commissaire Vionnet, who Brossard believes will ultimately save him.

But can such a man be saved? Is there redemption for a cruel and heartless person who fondly remembers the grotesque manner in which he singled out the 14 Jews at Dombey for execution? "It was the moment of joy," he recalls, "the moment of power. I am God. I am God!" There is much talk about God in "The Statement." The pious abbots maintain that their churchly authority puts them above the laws of man. Because they feel that Brossard has suffered in exile, they believe God has pardoned him. With his spurious visits to the confessional and his rote Acts of Contrition, Brossard is also convinced that God has absolved him and that he is in a state of grace. "Ego te absolvo," he says to himself. "Those words, the most joyous in religion."

For a shameless liar like Brossard, there can be no joy, no religion. But who, in the end, is more shameless, or godless? The murderer, or the men who would shield him?

These are the questions Moore challenges us to consider. From his remarkable 1955 debut novel, "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne," through "The Color of Blood" and "Lies of Silence," he has charted a fictional terrain riddled with ambiguities. That he has succeeded in doing so once again is reason for real joy.

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