FLUDD By Hilary Mantel; Henry Holt: 192 pp., $13 paper
What does it mean to be sophisticated? What does it mean to be a sophisticated writer, for surely Hilary Mantel, author of "The Giant O'Brien" and many other novels, is just that. She is wry, like Oscar Wilde, but takes on the most earnest of subjects in her books; in "Fludd," that's nothing less than the placement of faith and its power to transform. Perhaps sophistication is a combination of courage (to ask honest questions and to make fun of the asking) and respect (the belief, the hope that we can learn from the past with the wisdom to know that things can change).
"Fludd" was published in the U.K. in 1989. It is the story of a mysterious man who appears, on a stormy night in 1956, among the gray parishioners of the village of Featherhoughton, in the guise of the new curate, appointed by the bishop. His voice loosens their tangled heartstrings, and the story--that of a second coming--is like "Babette's Feast" or Jean Giono's "Joy of Man's Desiring." But Fludd is not Jesus, and what he shows them is not Heaven. "Take a hatchet to what you used to be," he advises. It is better to do that "than to keep the soul trapped in circumstances it can no longer abide." He may be the devil; he may be an angel sent to cleanse people of their cruelties. "The frightening thing is that life is fair," he thinks, "but what we need, as someone has already observed, is not justice but mercy."
THE SOCIAL LIVES OF DOGS The Grace of Canine Company By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas; Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $24
"Can we understand the mind of an animal?" Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has dedicated her life to answering, "Yes." She makes the nay-sayers, the people who were horrified when Darwin implied we shared a heritage with apes, the would-be scientists with their terror of anthropomorphizing seem a vanishing breed. The world opens up before her with no end to interspecies communication, which is her gift, and she travels no farther than her own frontyard, watching as the animals in her family, both dogs and cats, communicate, form groups and express themselves in ways that seem more clear than most humans seem capable of. There's Sundog with his "steely stillness"; Misty with her fears that Thomas attributes to childhood confinement (a kind of lack of self-esteem); Pearl, who is good at homing and finding her way in the woods and whom Thomas likens to a "sister." Throughout the book, Thomas adds dogs and cats and birds to her New Hampshire home. You have to love a woman who does a television show for an animal shelter to promote adoption and ends up bringing home four animals, including two feral cats. In one chapter, Thomas makes dinner for the whole family, its members perched on counter tops complaining if she is distracted by a thought or a phone call. And it is a family with firmly established groups like states within a country. When one animal dies, Thomas, who is several miles away at the time, picks up the news telepathically from a dog in her company, whom she imagines picked up the news from another, a sort of telepathic animal grapevine. One could, of course, doubt her powers of observation, but it seems more fun, less lonely and more sophisticated not to.
ELEGY FOR KOSOVO By Ismail Kadare Translated from the Albanian by Peter Constantine; Arcade: 128 pp., $17.95
"Blood flows one way in life and another in song," a Serbian minstrel sings on the eve of the legendary and bloody battle on the Blackbird Plains in Kosovo, on June 28, 1389. Here the Turkish Sultan, Murad, led his troops against a raucous coalition of Serbs, Albanians, Catholics, Bosnians and Romanians, whom they had cursed with the name "Balkans." "With such a name bestowed upon them by the enemy, they marched to battle and defeat." How could they win, the omniscient narrator muses, against an enemy united under Allah? And in the battle on the Blackbird Plains, they lose, and their Sultan is murdered, his blood spread on the plain like a curse. In this small novel, there is a twist of history: It is the Sultan's double who is murdered, and the Sultan himself lives entombed on the plains to witness the atrocities 600 years later. A Serbian minstrel Gjorg flees the battle and in the following days tries with his fellow fugitives to find shelter and food. In one village, he is asked to play in the home of a great lady who, mourning the ideals of Greek civilization and envisioning the bloody future, thinks, "One has to lose a thing in order to cherish it!" Ismail Kadare is a master at the pure explanation, the simple revelation. He has written many books about war, told from a perspective that most of us cannot imagine, and in so doing, he sheds a ray of light through our abject failure to understand the Balkans.