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April 29, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

PIANO MUSIC FOR FOUR HANDS By Roger Grenier. Translated from the French by Alice Kaplan University of Nebraska Press: 176 pp., $45, $15 paper

French writers of the last generation seem to have a genius for brevity. Here, Roger Grenier has collapsed three generations, two world wars, the history of an ancient regional ethnic prejudice, a sophisticated love of music and many relationships into, shall we say, a slender volume. "From one generation to the next," thinks Michel Mailhac, the novel's narrator in his life's third act, "we retain an innate ability to create our own unhappiness." Michel and his family, including his young niece and piano prodigy Emma, are sculpted from the same French clay. Michel's mother was a violinist and his father was a pianist, executed by his own army in World War I to provide an example to other defectors. Michel oscillates between "the desire to be a well-known musician and the need for obscurity." After a life of uncertain loves except for the piano, he is able to see his dream of fame realized by his niece, his only solace in his old age. Odd, he thinks, that in a privileged country such as France, "men so close to him had been crushed by history." In times of trauma, this is not the first novel to proclaim it is the artists who survive.

*

THE PIANO SHOP ON THE LEFT BANK. Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier By Thad Carhart Random House: 272 pp., $23.95

There it is, immediately familiar though you've never been inside: the little shop you pass every day, mysterious and ordinary, rebelliously resisting the pace of modern life. To read Thad Carhart's quiet book about a man who, after months of looking for excuses to enter the shop, buys a piano, picks up lost threads from his childhood that he dropped or that were dropped by his parents and rediscovers his love of playing is to resist the pace of life. We look to other cultures to help us do this: to give us the inspiration and the tools to resist the mechanical, the strident and the single-minded. Carhart hangs out in the piano shop, gets to know its young proprietor, Luc, remembers that as a child he was shy and unable to buy his own instrument and instruction. As an adult, lo and behold, he can do these things for himself.

*

AN ALGERIAN CHILDHOOD. Edited by Leila Sebbar Ruminator Books: 226 pp., $19.95

On one side the Mediterranean Sea, on the other the Sahara Desert: How could North Africa be anything but a land of the senses, especially in a child's memory? In each of the contributions by this volume's 16 writers, who grew up in Algeria between 1920 and 1960, a mysterious awareness of war, the love-hate relationship with France and a strange political rage filter down from the world of adults like dappled shadows in paradise.

Sensory memories of food: paella, omelets, hot biscuits, the fruits of Eden, smells of urine and bougainvillea, the taste of pure water. Memories of rituals: jujubes to eat on Rosh Hashana. Memories of visions and unexplained evenings: a crescent moon, white horses, plane trees beyond an esplanade. These memories steal the pages. "I was no hater," writes Jean-Pierre Millecam. "I had no vocation for contempt, rather for tenderness." The memories of kitchens and rituals shimmer over those of war, almost without contest.

*

I WAS CARLOS CASTANEDA. The Afterlife Dialogues By Martin Goodman Three Rivers Press:

220 pp., $12 paper

Such narrow, narrow confines we live in. Every so often, one of us primates escapes these dimensions, as Martin Goodman did. All we can do is rattle the bars and look after him as he runs into the hills. We wait for his letters home. This book is one such letter. "Why not?" asks Carlos Castaneda, dead since 1998, when Goodman tells him it's not possible that the great mystic could be visiting Goodman at his house in the Pyrenees. "I'm a writer. You're a writer. We both find ourselves in this ancient French village. It's natural that we should meet." 'But you're dead," says Goodman. "The smile goes from his face and he flashes into anger. 'Who told you so?"' Castaneda unravels Goodman, and with Goodman, the reader. "You know how I lived," he asks. "I gave my attention to everything around me. You know what paying attention does? It makes you God!"

In conversations and walks and meals and visions with Castaneda, Goodman is given the benefit of Castaneda's wisdom. "You are a writer," Castaneda chides him. "You have to work harder. If you've got the secret of the shaman's song, then deliver it." Heart-song, focus, vision, spirit. These teachers call it different things. Why is it so hard to see?

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