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Book Review / Fiction

Suspense in an Exile's Subtle Reconciliation

THE PARIS YEARS OF ROSIE KAMIN, by Richard Teleky, Steerforth Press, $24, 218 pages

April 17, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are times when fiction and psychotherapy seem to share a common goal: to explore (and, in the case of psychotherapy, also relieve) a human being's pain through an understanding of his or her inner life, family legacy and emotional history. In clumsy novels, a convenient direct link is often made between facing down an early childhood trauma or a sudden loss, say, and achieving happiness. In novels of a subtler coloration, a character who comes to terms with a complex past may be deepened without being tidily transformed.

Richard Teleky's "The Paris Years of Rosie Kamin" is, for the most part, such a novel. Simply written, carefully observed and never melodramatic, "Rosie Kamin" presents its 40-year-old eponymous protagonist as a woman who is intelligent and thoughtful without, at first, being particularly rigorous in her self-reflections. The dilemma creates a kind of emotional suspense as the reader wonders when, and how, Rosie will awaken to several disturbing elements in her life.

The Pittsburgh-born Rosie is an exile, both physically--she has lived in Paris for 20 years--and psychologically, in that she has deliberately removed herself from her family and her religious heritage. She is the daughter of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, Elza Kamin, who never spoke about her time in Auschwitz or described her parents' murders there, and committed suicide when Rosie was about to graduate college. The motif of a concealed or avoided trauma is echoed in Rosie's relationship with her companion, Serge, who is gravely ill with alcoholic hepatitis, a condition they never properly discuss.

Initially the muteness between Rosie, an English teacher, and Serge, an intellectual newspaper vendor, seems implausible, but gradually it emerges as a habit of Rosie's personality not to meet the sadness in her life head-on. Rosie's first sexual experience was a date rape; elsewhere she is mugged by Gypsies and her apartment is vandalized. But these events drift by as if in a dream--though not without leaving marks: Rosie's hair is mysteriously falling out, and she is increasingly haunted by her mother's terrible fate.

Rosie's thoughts are turned toward Elza by a visit from her sister Deb. Rosie is quiet, cosmopolitan, melancholy; Deb is outspoken, strident, in some ways a caricature of a provincial American abroad. Yet Teleky does not condescend to Deb. Her complaints transcend the usual cliches about the foreign and the unfamiliar: When a swastika is carved on the apartment door of Serge's friend, Deb insists that "in Europe that's how they treat Jews, isn't it?" To the friend's inevitable response--"Not all French people supported the Nazis"--Deb says, "We're children of a survivor; we can't afford to pretend."

Where Rosie has turned away from their mother's past, Deb's response has been to study Yiddish, join a synagogue and meet with the children of survivors, where she discovers that they share certain traits in common: "We feel guilty about everything," she tells Rosie. "And we're very critical." While Rosie is not helped by religion--reviewing Freud's "The Future of an Illusion," she decides that belief is a "poor compensation for human suffering"--she is acutely aware of her critical tendencies.

The brash Deb emerges as one of Rosie's teachers; the sensitive Serge is another. From him she learns tolerance, especially in regard to her sister. Also, Serge astutely perceives Deb's loneliness and her longing for Rosie. But he is most movingly Rosie's teacher after his death, when she is forced to think about why she ignored his alcoholism and his illness.

After Serge dies, Rosie and Deb travel to Budapest to visit the apartment house where Elza lived and the synagogue where she worshiped. Deb maintains that because as a family they never discussed their mother's past, "[e]veryone in our house was dead . . . All of us," including--still--Rosie, who understandably disagrees. When she returns to her lonely life in Paris, however, Rosie falls into a suicidal depression, which seems to support Deb's view of her. At her lowest point, Rosie cuts a yellow star out of an old blouse, sews it to her raincoat and wears it defiantly throughout Paris. This disturbing gesture of reconnection inaugurates Rosie's gentle transformation and brings out Teleky's most assured writing.

While certain elements in Rosie's world are less cohesive, namely the meandering and unfocused recapitulation of two of her earlier romantic relationships, in its final pages "Rosie Kamin" makes a poignant case for finding a place for the past in one's present life. Rosie may stop wearing her starred coat in public, but it is clear that the coat will remain in her closet--and in her consciousness too.

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