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Posthumous Triumph

IN THE MEMORY OF THE FOREST. By Charles T. Powers . Scribner: 384 pp., $23

March 23, 1997|ROBERT CULLEN | Robert Cullen's fourth novel, "Heirs of the Fire," will be published this autumn

The dwindling band of American correspondents who tell us about the world falls roughly into two categories. There are the parachute artists, who buzz around the globe to give us a quick gloss on an election here, a famine there and a war in the next time zone. If people are starving, I must be in Somalia.

Then there is a rarer breed, the journalists who steep themselves in the countries they cover. They learn the language. They read the history. They travel in second-class train compartments, and they sit up late at night, drinking the local alcohol with the local people. They often become more intimately familiar with a country than the diplomats and scholars who are the purported experts, because they are unconstrained by the niceties of protocol.

And when their tours of duty end, they frequently find they have more knowledge of and more passion for the lands they covered than they were able to shoehorn into the daily reports and analyses they filed on the fly. So they write books to try to convey the full truth of what they saw abroad--usually books of reportage, but occasionally novels.

Judging by "In the Memory of the Forest," Charles T. Powers was an avatar of the latter category of journalist. I use the past tense because the most melancholy paragraph in a novel full of melancholy passages is the short biographical sketch on the back flap of the dust jacket. It informs us that the author died last year at 53. This is his only book.

Powers reported from Warsaw for the Los Angeles Times from 1986 to 1991. If a correspondent could pick from all the foreign assignments of this century, what could be better than being at large in the Soviet bloc during its dissolution? It was a time of public heroism and grand events, best epitomized by the fall of the Berlin Wall. But grand events are not what Powers chose to write about. He gives us, instead, a Polish village, in the early 1990s, which he calls Jadowia and he fills with characters who are neither Communist villains nor Solidarity saints.

Powers' sense of place is astounding. His knowledge of Poland fills "In the Memory of the Forest" with details that bring the novel alive. He knows how Polish peasants butcher calves and share bottles of vodka. He knows the smell of the bus to Warsaw and the sound the leaves make as clandestine lovers slip away to a rendezvous in the forest.

He knows the way the old party bosses kept people in line and where the bosses are today, "burrowed in like ticks on a sick dog." He knows the banality of their corruption, and he knows the self-righteous venality of some of the priests and politicos scrambling to take their places. He knows the places where the Jewish cemeteries used to be and what happened to the tombstones. He knows what the Russian trucks are carrying as they lumber through the Polish countryside late at night.

And he knows the Polish soul. He knows that experience has taught most Poles that life comes down to three things: "Your four walls, your little fire. Yourself." He knows the Poles' gloomy foreboding that freedom means only the right to choose their overlords--Russian apparatchiks or German businessmen. He knows that most of them have opted, at one time or another, to join a "little choir of silence" rather than speak out about the injustices they have witnessed. And he knows the guilt they feel for doing so.

Powers knows this place and its people so well that he pulls off a rare feat in American fiction: He writes about foreign lands without resorting to American characters. For Powers' protagonists, who are all Polish, America is a faraway place--a source of baseball caps and "Kojak" reruns--and this distance creates an atmosphere all the more convincing. "In the Memory of the Forest" becomes a difficult book to categorize. The publishers, placing bloody fingerprints on the dust jacket, seem to want to present it as a novel of murder or suspense. And indeed, there is killing in it. The scene in which an old man describes the deaths of a family of Jews in the forest during World War II is powerful enough to evoke the recollection of the killings in a Spanish village in "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

But this is no potboiler. It moves slowly--at times too slowly. But while the pacing might have been better, suspense and intrigue are only the context for what Powers wants to explore, which is the battered state of the human spirit in Eastern Europe after half a century of genocide, corruption and misrule.

Powers clearly believed that the Eastern Europeans can move on to a brighter future, provided they confront their past honestly and deal with it constructively. "In the Memory of the Forest" makes brutally clear how painful that process has been and will be.

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