M A R C H 1 9 9 4
by Phoebe-Lou Adams
The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman
by Louis de Bernieres.
Morrow, 388 pages, $22.00.
Mr. de Bernieres continues his chronicle of life in a
nameless Andean country with the further trials and triumphs of the people of Cochadebajo de los Gatos.
The characters--guerrillas, drug dealers, japesters, whores, resuscitated
conquistadores, ghosts, assorted law officers, clergy frocked and unfrocked,
peaceful citizens, and magical cats--are those already established by the
author, and they perform with their usual unnerving fluctuations between
gruesome bloodshed and Rabelaisian sexuality. Cardinal Guzman is a new arrival
in this world. He is a once-decent man corrupted by money and power, whose
uncharacteristic attempt to reform national morality produces a crusade led by
a pious fanatic and conducted by loot-happy brutes. The campaign eventually
reaches Cochadebajo de los Gatos, where Father Garcia, "unjustly unfrocked
owing to the allegations of an importunate and deluded female parishioner,"
preaches on a divine revelation, "which, to put it plainly, is that the greater
part of creation is a mistake and an oversight that God heartily regrets. . . .
And so the truth is that we are all imprisoned angels, the descendants of
imprisoned angels, living in a world created by Satan and not by God. . . ." It
is not clear what the congregation of jaguars makes of Father Garcia's sermon,
but the human population happily endorses his recommendation that the situation
be corrected by fiestas and fornication, for surely a good God intended his
people to be happy. Besides, the program requires little change in their
regular habits. One can foresee approximately what will happen to the
Cardinal's inadvertent crusade when it reaches the town, but the details of the
action are wildly fanciful, comically grotesque, mercilessly savage, and
altogether unpredictable, while the author's satirical commentary hits targets
well beyond the confines of South America.
by Vicki Hearne.
HarperCollins, 238 pages, $20.00.
Ms. Hearne's collected pieces are held together by her interest in the
character and training of animals, but the individual items have, on the whole,
a decidedly casual quality. They frequently seem to have been written in haste
while the author's mind--or most of it--was devoted to some other matter.
The Alarming History of Medicine
by Richard Gordon.
St. Martin's, 256 pages, $22.95.
Forty years ago Mr. Gordon wrote Doctor in the House,
followed by Doctor in so many other places that he can be considered as ubiquitous as Kilroy. Mr.
Gordon's attempt to make a condensed history of medicine as amusing as those
fictional adventures is somewhat strained, verging at times on the snide, but
it is thick with irreverent opinions, interesting oddities, and unexpected
conjunctions. "As Lister discovered antisepsis knowing nothing about
streptococci, and Lind cured scurvy while knowing nothing of vitamin C, so
Darwin founded genetics knowing nothing about DNA."
by Larry Brown.
Algonquin, 192 pages, $17.95.
Mr. Brown, the author of well-regarded novels, has turned
to a work of fact, an account of his seventeen years with the fire department of Oxford, Mississippi,
from which he retired in 1990 with the rank of captain. His memoir is not a
chronological record but rather a description of particular episodes
illustrating specific aspects of a dangerous and often treacherous job, a job
that sometimes induced "a weird callousness" because nobody wanted to think
about "the people we couldn't save." Aside from fires and car crashes, Mr.
Brown writes engagingly of Sam, a uniquely stupid dog, and of his own
collisions with rabbits and a barbecued pig. The book is unpretentious, solidly
real, and delightful.
by Slavenka Drakulic, translated by Greg Mosse.
Norton, 192 pages, $20.00.
The narrator of Ms. Drakulic's novel is a female sculptor,
a woman obsessed and to some extent paralyzed by memories of her mother's love affairs, although
these memories are partly imaginary. That the mother subordinated her
daughter's interests to those of her current lover is, however, believable--but
the fact emerges only after much overwrought sexual maundering by the narrator
has worn the reader's patience thin.
The Princes in the Tower
by Alison Weir.
Ballantine, 303 pages, $23.00.
Either of the sons of Edward IV had a better claim to the
English throne than their uncle, who assumed the crown as Richard III. He took the boys into
custody and confined them to the Tower of London, from which they never
emerged. There has been much argument and speculation about what actually
happened to the children, with Thomas More in the 1520s representing Richard as
a murderer, and modern revisionists crying Tudor propaganda and representing
him as a maligned innocent. Ms. Weir's impressive researches should settle the
matter. She has traced More's probable informants, pursued contemporary
accounts (one surfaced as recently as 1934), and applied firm common sense to
what she has found. On the old rule about circumstantial evidence, Richard had
opportunity (the boys were under his control), means (loyal henchmen eager for
advancement), and a really smashing motive, for in those days it was thought
passing brave to be a King and ride in triumph through London. Romantic
adherents of Richard will, of course, refuse to believe a word of Ms. Weir's
The Green Knight
by Iris Murdoch.
Viking, 480 pages, $23.95.
The title of Ms. Murdoch's novel arouses an expectation of Arthurian
connections, which is encouraged by the early appearance of three girls who
promise to be the Lady of Shalott in triplicate. Then comes a youth with an
unreasonably troublesome injury--the Fisher King, perhaps? There follow a
would-be anchorite seeking mystical experience, Cain and Abel, a minor
poltergeist, a dog who performs a rescue at sea, and the Green Knight himself.
That is, the author claims the man is the Green Knight, but after the preceding
distractions one is entitled to doubt it. Regardless of skillful writing, the
novel behind all the portentous religious and mythical trimmings is the story
of some upper-middle-class Britons who, with much chatter (they all talk alike)
and numerous weeping fits, emerge from their accustomed ruts, thanks to the
Green Knight, and arrive at a settlement in which every Jack gets his Jill, or
at least a reasonable facsimile. The ultimate effect is of a trompe l'oeil
cathedral facade imposed on an ordinary house.
The Language Instinct
by Steven Pinker, Ph.D.
Morrow, 388 pages, $23.00.
The author is a professor and the director of the Center for Cognitive
Neuroscience at MIT. As a result of his own studies and those, duly credited,
of other explorers in his field, he has concluded that there is an
instinct--that is, a built-in system--for the mastery of language inherent in
all human brains and identical in its functions regardless of the language that
the individual infant is obliged to learn. The evidence for his belief is
complicated but persuasive even to a reader impervious to statements like "XP '
(SPEC) X YP*," and Dr. Pinker writes with acid verve, particularly in regard to
self-appointed language pundits and antique rules illogically derived from
Latin. As he rightly observes, "Julius Caesar could not have split an
infinitive if he had wanted to." This is an exciting book, certain to produce
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.