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Gnarled Tale of Tragedies, Monstrosities : THE INSULT by Rupert Thomson; Alfred A. Knopf; $24, 406 pages

BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

August 22, 1996|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

For hide-and-seek, the most important qualification is charm; concealment comes in second. How many children exult in a particularly ingenious hiding place, their exhilaration fading as the minutes drag on and nobody comes near; and they begin to wonder if it is a question of popularity, and if the others have quit to do something else?

Detective stories and the literature of enigma are something like that. The critic Edmund Wilson famously trumpeted that he didn't care who killed Roger Ackroyd, but most readers found allure not only in Agatha Christie's puzzle but also in its players. The metaphysical dilemma of Kafka's K., trying to get into the Castle, would interest us only abstractly if it weren't for the character's forlorn human appeal.

"The Insult" has an allure problem. The British novelist Rupert Thomson gives Blom, the protagonist, an extremely bad head day (or week, or months). The time is vague, so is the locale: somewhere Middle European, perhaps Poland or Slovakia. One day a mugger shoots Blom in the head. He goes blind--not from eye damage but from cerebral insult--and has a titanium plate put in his skull to cover the hole.

Visser, his neurosurgeon, insists that his patient can't see and never will; yet intermittently Blom seems to see a great deal, particularly at night. He watches his nurse strip naked by his bedside. He observes people copulating in the elevator and the corridors of his crummy hotel.

He describes the lush beauty of Nina, a woman who picks him up in a bar and makes incandescent love to him. She gets off on the idea that he can't see her--it leaves her more freedom--and she blindfolds herself to heighten the pleasure. Then she disappears, and the police come nosing around.

It's a lot for Blom to handle. His on-and-off-again vision may be a delusion. Or if it is real, why does the increasingly sinister Visser deny it? Is Visser using the titanium plate to transmit images to Blom's insulted brain? Things get worse when Blom begins to receive television images: sports and home improvement programs and porno clips. He flees to an inn in the mountains--if this is Poland or Slovakia they would be the Tatras--where television reception is feeble.

The author's "what is really going on?" is neatly layered. The puzzle is intriguing, up to a point; and there is a nice episode where Blom is tapped to find a vanished circus artist who performs as the Invisible Man. A blind man is presumably in the best position to find an invisible one.

Apart from the story's mysteries, there is the mystery of the story's deeper meaning; it is mainly this that the author is teasing us with. Here is the trouble, though. Blom is all spooky quandary, but as his literal and metaphysical ordeal takes him among bewilderment, paranoia and anger, he is very little else: not so much an unknown person as a virtual person. He struggles in his maze but doesn't draw us in after him.

Up to this point, at least, there has been a certain taut coherence to the tale. This dissolves in the second part. The old innkeeper, Edith Hekmann, tells Blom the story of her life. It is a grim, increasingly gruesome tale of lust, incest, madness and gore in an impoverished mountain hamlet; a Tobacco Road in the Tatras.

She tells of her incestuous affair, as a girl, with Axel, her brother. After marrying a neighbor, Axel and his wife die in a mysterious accident. Edith brings up their baby who turns out to be mentally deficient. Her twisted passion for Axel is transposed to the boy, whom she defends, despite his growing dangerousness, against all the world. When he rapes Edith's daughter and goes on to a series of ever more grisly acts, she shields him with a gruesomeness of her own.

Edith's monstrous story, written with an occasional touch of ghastly beauty, is so coldly grotesque as to seem hallucinatory. Yet its detail is repellently real. The contrast with the abstract torment of Blom in the first part is too violent and arbitrary to engage even our curiosity, let alone our belief. The only ostensible connection between the stories is that Edith's granddaughter turns out to be the vanished Nina.

Undoubtedly the author intends more of a link than this; the intensity with which he conveys both dry nightmare and oozing horror seems to promise one. Perhaps other readers will find it; I couldn't.

In its absence, this gnarled mystery defies not only untangling, but much desire for it.

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