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IN A PIG'S EAR. By Paul Bryers . Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 278 pp., $23

March 23, 1997|ASKOLD MELNYCZUK | Askold Melnyczuk is the author of a novel, "What Is Told" (Faber & Faber)

One reason we love myths is because a part of us secretly, and beyond reason, believes in them. Surely there must be a magical realm inhabited by infinitely powerful beings, whose charmed lives brim with adventures, all of which end happily--an Oz, an Olympus, a Camelot. Our imagination has palatial cravings. Myths, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, speak to our eternal capacity for wonder.

Hardly a year passes without a film or a novel winking at Camelot. Latest to wink at Arthur and his noble knights is Paul Bryers, a British writer and film director, with "In a Pig's Ear." His novel is a frequently dazzling addition to a body of literature that also claims T. S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland" and Walker Percy's novel "Lancelot." Bryers' characters are not literally knights, witches or wizards. "In a Pig's Ear" isn't a costume drama. On the contrary, the setting here is decidedly contemporary: after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rending of the Iron Curtain. The cast includes neo-Nazis, punk painters working in league with Germany's Green party and vengeful ex-Stasi agents. Czech President Vaclav Havel also has a brief walk-on appearance.

Bryers' story is intricate. The narrator, a Czech named Milan, has been arrested for a murder he may or may not have committed and is being held in a prison work camp in Germany, where he rehearses his twisted tale to the only creature willing to listen--a pig.

Milan's story begins in Prague in 1968, where he befriended Adam, an American student from Berkeley attending a conference: "We were at that paranoid stage of the Cold War when either the KGB or the CIA were alleged to be the secret paymasters of everything and everyone of significance in the world and quite a few things of no significance at all, like student conferences." Bryers evokes the period in a compelling voice spiked with hip attitude and Old World charm.

When the Soviets arrive, the friends flee, leaving behind Adam's mistress, an East German girl who later claims to have been pregnant with his child. The "abandoned son" motif plays a crucial role later. Adam's own father was (perhaps) a German nobleman executed by Hitler. After the war, Adam's beautiful mother hooked up with an American soldier, a Russian Jewish refugee, who spirited her away to Hollywood. There, the adopted Adam grew into a successful film director and embodied qualities found in our contemporary Camelot. Eventually he even married a woman named Jackie.

Cut to the collapse of the Soviet empire: Adam returns to Europe to film a retelling of the Arthurian legend. Driven by a grandiosity endemic in his profession, this pseudo-Spielberg assumes other projects along the way. Determined to teach as well as to delight, he proposes to build a virtual reality museum devoted to re-creating Hitler's last days. And he sets out to track down his son, which leads to this tantalizing reunion still: "What I saw was a fantastic image of the reunited family: the Hollywood father, the communist mother and the Nazi storm-trooper son. A triptych of a confused world."

While Homer's "Odyssey" gave James Joyce a ground from which germinated characters as memorable as any in 20th century fiction, Bryers mines the Arthurian legend for plot. This effect is double-edged. Dazzle does not always equal depth. By creating contemporary equivalents for most of the key players in the Arthurian myth, he is spared the trouble of developing his characters. The result is a book so intricately plotted and overdetermined that eventually its primary players are partially (needlessly, regrettably) flattened by the need to cleave to the myth. Bryers writes wittily about serious things--one hears echoes of Milan Kundera's deft play with ideas. Yet there's something exasperatingly elusive about the world he creates. The harder you look, the less you see: All that is solid melts into air, and soon Camelot itself dissolves in mists spawned by the dry ice melting under the stage.

Near the end of his spoof, Milan indulges in a rare bit of speculation. "We need our Merlins just as we need our Arthurs and our Lancelots and our Galahads, our Morgan le Fays and our Mordreds and the whole pervasive clan, just as we need the delusions, the myths, the Camelots." Exactly why he doesn't say. Maybe it is because they provide a sturdy armature on which to hang a fiendishly clever story.

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