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Her Passion Crosses Boundaries in the Fluid Geography of Love

THE TASTE OF A MAN by Slavenka Drakulic; Penguin; $10.95, 212 pages

September 19, 1997|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Slavenka Drakulic, her name alone may make you feel that you need to wear a beret and slouch at a cafe table to read her fiction or, for that matter, her regular contributions to the New Republic, the Nation, the Observer and newspapers around the world. Drakulic has seen a lot, which is saying a little. Born in Croatia in 1949, she is at home with the blood and guts and smell of daily life, and she is a writer who tests boundaries--moral boundaries--not mere stylistic ones. "The Taste of a Man" is not the first book in which she has dared readers, almost tauntingly, to put her book down. So you must be prepared to be challenged, disgusted and determined not to be shocked. Otherwise you won't make it and, frankly, we won't hold your table.

Tereza is a Polish graduate student at NYU. She meets Jose, a Brazilian anthropologist, in one of the city's most romantic spots. He is dark, almost Indian in color, handsome, with a face that would have looked "like a mask of unreal beauty, had it not been for the full, sensual lips which gave it an expression of hardness, determination, perhaps even cruelty." Tereza is, of course, fragile, small-boned and blond. The relationship begins, almost immediately, with three days of sex-biting, scratching, food and desperate, dangerous desire. OK, we expect nothing less of Drakulic. But (and here we add a very large "but") Tereza, seeing the end of this affair from the beginning, decides that in order to really possess Jose, she is going to have to kill him: "Had there been any other way, any other solution to the relationship in which we found ourselves, to that serpentine intertwining of our beings, none of this would have happened. That is why I am not sorry that he had to die." Has a nasty ring, doesn't it?

Back in Sa~o Paulo, Jose has a wife and a baby boy, Felipe. Tereza thinks of the wife as "an amorphous lump of pulsating life, an amoeba who existed in some faraway, almost imaginary place . . . a spot on Jose's lung." Jose and Tereza move in together for what they both know will only be three months, the length of Jose's grant. They don't leave the apartment very much.

Jose, it so happens, is researching the Uruguayan soccer team whose plane went down in the Andes in 1972. You may recall that the survivors were forced to eat each other, and Jose is interested in how that affected their Catholicism. When Jose first meets Tereza, he is reading a book called "Divine Hunger." (Don't imagine for a minute that Drakulic offers any humorous respite to her inexorable plot.)

In the novel's early pages, the narrator quickly begins her disturbing parallelism between their evolving, erotic relationship and her plans to murder Jose. She will cut him up in pieces, eat as much as she can and distribute the rest around New York City at the places they have enjoyed together. Then she will scrub their apartment from top to bottom, obsessively, and go home. "I will never give it back to you," she says of Jose's soul, "and you will never give mine back to me." The hapless reader is left strung out between Freud and nihilism--a common problem for readers in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Of course, you want to know, why bother? In a world of feel-good books, why should I read this abysmal downer? Drakulic is a very interesting writer and worth following, not least of all because she is Croatian and 48 years old. She does fascinating things with sensuality that are never skin-deep (they go deeper than that); there is a fine tradition in literature of experimentation with the dark voice of the soul (for example, Dostoevsky's "Notes From the Underground"), and it is almost always a voice that spills onto the page with alarming ease. As Drakulic says at the novel's end: "In time the pain will evaporate, just like the smell."

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