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The Wanderers

CALAMITIES OF EXILE: Three Nonfiction Novellas.\o7 By Lawrence Weschler (University of Chicago Press: 192 pp., $25)\f7

November 01, 1998|JERI LABER | Jeri Laber is a founder of Human Rights Watch and its senior advisor

Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile, came out from behind his pseudonymous writings at the time of the Gulf War to attack the government of Saddam Hussein, despite his love for and conflicted loyalty to his father, Iraq's leading architect, who for a long time justified his service to the dictator by his love for his country's architectural heritage.

Jan Kavan, a Czech expatriate, ran Palach press in London for 20 years and was a leading figure in the exiled opposition to the Czechoslovak communist regime. When he returned after the 1989 revolution, he was elected to parliament only to be accused of having collaborated with the secret police during his years in exile.

Breyten Breytenbach, a distinguished Afrikaner poet and painter, somehow became involved while in exile in a hair-brained scheme to enter South Africa in disguise on a doomed mission that led to his long and disastrous imprisonment .

These three un-ordinary individuals who, for opposing tyranny in their respective countries, were forced into exile are the subjects of "Calamities of Exile." Lawrence Weschler, a recent recipient of a Lannen Literary Award for nonfiction and an exceptionally skillful and versatile writer on a wide range of subjects, including the issues of truth and accountability discussed above, brings together a number of his diverse interests in "Calamities of Exile." The three "nonfiction novellas" (each of which appeared previously in the New Yorker) enable Weschler to explore the nature of three repressive governments--in Iraq, Czechoslovakia and South Africa--and of three specific people who had the courage to oppose them.

Weschler's choice of heroes is in itself inspired: These are complicated individuals, "edgy," in the author's words: "even their edges have edges!" Achieving the trust that enabled him to enter their lives so completely must have taken some doing; sorting out the twists and turns of their murky stories was also quite a feat.

As different from each other as they are, these stories share a resonance, and it is not difficult to find unifying themes. Most intriguing, in the first two stories, are the strong, ideologically impassioned fathers of the protagonists, who at one time or another supported the tyrannical governments that their sons came to oppose. In the third story, the father role is usurped by two strong older brothers, each of whom, in a very different way, also served the interests of the state. In each case, these relationships, intrinsic as they are to the characters' actions, in no way seem to alter the strong ties of family love.

Weschler's keen insight, his tendency to wry understatement and his often unexpected choice of words make these tales endlessly absorbing. His writing can be breathtaking as, for example, in the opening paragraph of the Breytenbach novella, all one sentence, which sets the stage, draws you in, tells you in outline everything you are about to hear about the flawed but fascinating poet-painter and, at the same time, makes you want to know more. "Calamities of Exile" seamlessly merges essay and storytelling. These stories, rooted in the depressing facts of contemporary politics, have the power and fascination of good fiction.

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