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The Best Books of 2001

Fiction

December 02, 2001

Julian Rios is one of the most original writers living in Europe today. "Monstruary" is an opportune place to begin reading Rios. "Monstruary" opens in Berlin as the story's narrator, Emil Alia, sits at the bedside of painter Victor Mons, who threw himself out of a hotel window after a frenzied evening of destroying his own work. His long years of painting have been an attempt to depict the horrors of the 20th century. Rios comes from the literary tradition that produced "Finnegan's Wake" and the novels of Arno Schmidt, Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino (and you might add Georges Perec and Raymond Roussel for good measure). Impatient with the limits of the conventional novel, Rios shuns elaborate scene-setting and long conversations between characters. Instead, he toys with his own knowledge of art (he has written about the painters Kitaj, Saura and others) and language to create Mons and the people that he has transformed into bestial erotic images for his series of paintings titled "Monstruary" ("monster" as well as his own name). "Monstruary" is a book constructed of many roads, all of which must be taken in order to grapple with the mystery of artistic creation at the center of this story. Through Alia's eyes, Rios has conjured up a novel as a tour through the infernal memory of contemporary Europe.

Thomas McGonigle

*

MY NAME IS RED

A Novel

By Orhan Pamuk

Translated from the Turkish

by Erdag Goknar

Alfred A. Knopf: 422 pp., $25.95

*

Love and crime in an exotic city have always proved a compelling combination to Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, whether in his 1990 contemporary novel "The White Castle" or his historical "The Black Book." Yet it is neither passion nor homicide that makes Pamuk's latest, "My Name Is Red," the rich and essential book that it is. While Pamuk's descriptions of the ravishing and ravenous Shekure quicken the heart, and his circuitous clues to the identity of the murderer quicken the mind, Pamuk is neither Jacqueline Susann nor Umberto Eco. It is Pamuk's rendering of the intense life of artists negotiating the devilishly sharp edge of Islam 1,000 years after its birth that elevates "My Name Is Red" to the rank of modern classic.

Jonathan Levi

*

NIAGARA FALLS ALL OVER AGAIN

A Novel

By Elizabeth McCracken

Dial Press: 308 pp., $23.95

*

Mose Sharp, the tone-perfect narrator of Elizabeth McCracken's beautifully written second novel, is a Jewish boy from west Des Moines who is expected to inherit the family clothing store. Instead, breaking his father's heart, he runs away at 18 and becomes a vaudeville performer during the Depression, when vaudeville is dying. This is a realistic novel, as well as one in which every bit of stage patter, every foreshadowing and echo, every time-shift is faultlessly handled. The reality is that most of the fun happens in the first half of life. Then parents die, children drown in swimming pools, spouses die of cancer, careers peter out, old age sets in. It's proof of McCracken's magic that the impression we take away from "Niagara Falls All Over Again" isn't of sadness--though there's plenty of that--so much as exuberance and wit.

Michael Harris

*

ON THE WATER

A Novel

By H. M. van den Brink

Translated from the Dutch

By Paul Vincent

Grove Press: 134 pp., $21

*

Like Thomas Eakins' paintings of 19th century scullers on the Schuylkill, H.M. van den Brink's debut meticulously depicts the transcendent quiet at the core of an oarsman's exertions. His prose is as evanescent as the light on the surface of a river, and he treats history--in this case the early, foreboding days of World War II--as an easel painter would. By studying color and light--the fleeting moods and images of a long-ago summer, the bricks and canals of Amsterdam--he evokes manages to evoke an entire lost era, a forgotten Europe. It's the summer of 1939, and an unlikely duo of teenage rowers--reticent, class-conscious Anton and charming, Jewish David--are being whipped into championship form by an exacting, vaguely comical German coach. Similarly, Van den Brink--in focusing us on the hard particulars of competition and youth--has given us this affecting, ghostly book.

Mark Rozzo

*

OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS

A Novel

By Fernando Vallejo

Translated from the Spanish

By Paul Hammond

Serpent's Tail: 136 pp.,

$13.99 paper

*

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