The Peripatetic Reviewer

THE GASP

by Romain Gary
Putnam’s, $6.95
A French novelist, born in Russia in 1914, Romain Gary is as fluent in English as in his native tongue. He is probably best remembered for A European Education, The Roots of Heaven, and The Company of Men. Most of his novels have been satires in which, for all their wit and humor, one hears a lament for the lost dignity of man, a note which is struck repeatedly and with increasing force in his new book. Paris is the base for this story, which flits from Rome, to Peking, to the Pentagon, with cosmopolitan familiarity traceable to Gary’s early profession as a diplomat. He is a complete internationalist who can give the boot to all of them.
In Paris a group of scientists known as the Cercle Érasme are intent on harnessing a new form of energy: at the last gasp, at the moment of a person’s death, a throbbing amount of energy is released, and the problem they are solving is how to capture and contain it, and to apply the power to practical use. Rumor of their experiment horrifies the Pope and leads to much resistance from the papacy; as the news spreads, it has a revolting effect on the laity. The mastermind of the French scientists, Marc Mathieu, is himself so appalled at the possibilities that he seeks escape in alcohol in Tahiti. But he realizes that a technological secret of such portentousness would be seized by all the great powers, and, wrestling with himself as did the nuclear scientists in the early stages of the hydrogen bomb, he resumes his leadership in Paris, aware that he is now a target for both the CIA and the Russians.
The Chinese, of course, become the object of greatest suspicion—in the early days when Mao says that he wishes his energy to be converted into light for the schoolrooms, all is benevolent and the peasants place wreaths on the “gaspers” (the containers of the new power) as if in ancestor worship. But when the pictures harvested by the satellite over the province of Sinkiang show that there is a large interconnection of the gaspers, the world begins to panic at the thought of what will be done with such a vast accumulation of energy. The Pentagon itself knows that the American attempt at such a liberation has shocking results. Despite his alcoholic withdrawals, despite the remonstrances of his beautiful American wife—“Golly, Marc, why don’t you work on something nice for a while!”—Mathieu accepts that he must pursue the discovery to its ultimate installation.
Suave, sophisticated in his knowledge of international folly, adroit in his characterization of Chairman Mao, Colonel Starr of the CIA, Valenti, the conscientious physicist, and of Albert-the-Citroën (one of the early victims of the experiment), so amusing on the surface and so threatening beneath, Romain Gary is one of the few writers who can have fun with a mean subject.

A WOMAN NAMED SOLITUDE

by André Schwarz-Bart
Atheneum, $5.95
A stylist, slow and fastidious in his craft, André Schwarz-Bart was awarded the Prix Goncourt for his first book, The Last of the Just. His novels are like miniatures painted on ivory, and‚ perhaps because the author himself was a member of the Maquis who had been deported to an extermination camp and escaped, his stories are poignant with the cruelty which men inflict on one another.
This new book begins with a little black girl by the name of Bayangumay, born in a remote estuary in West Africa in 1755. On the day of her birth she is promised to an old friend of her father’s in memory of a happy hunting expedition they had shared in the mountains. But as she matures, she teases and attracts a boy of her own age, Komobo, and it is she who tempts him to steal away for their short idyll upriver. On the third day she announces, “Komobo, I must go to my wedding.” They return and, after the anger of the tribe has been appeased and she has given proof of her virginity, she becomes the wife of the old man. It is then that her captivity begins.
Soon after the marriage their camp is raided by the slave hunters, her husband is killed, and she is cramped and locked in the stinking misery of the French ship bound for the island of Guadeloupe. Midway in the voyage the women are released from their chains, are washed, and then given over to the tender mercies of the crew. It is thus that she becomes pregnant and eventually the mother of a mulatto girl called “Solitude,” a child with green eyes and uncommon beauty.
Solitude’s mother had been a wilding, as the white men said, and Solitude herself resists the regime on the du Parcs’ plantation. From the first, she is slow to speak: her stammering, her faraway look, her lack of subservience prevent her from being the house servant or comely mistress that her white owners would have liked. She is sold and resold and battered, and in her proud, lonely career she epitomizes in touching detail the fortitude of the half-caste amidst the punishing slavery of the eighteenth century.

MEMOIR OF A REVOLUTIONARY

by Milovan Djilas
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.00
Montenegrins, whether they be dancers, writers, clowns, or rebels, are the most irrepressible of the six nationals of Yugoslavia over whom Tito has presided with almost unbelievable calm, given the past history of the Balkans. Milovan Djilas, one of Tito’s most trusted and fiery aides in the critical years of World War II, was vice president of Yugoslavia until his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1954. As a revolutionary student, he was imprisoned for three years by the monarchy in the 1930s and‚ since his break with his old boss, has twice been imprisoned for his outspoken opinions, reason enough for writing this memoir, which, incidentally, has been admirably translated by Drenka Willen.
Of peasant stock with a force that sprang from the naked rocks of his mountain home, he was determined to study journalism at the University of Belgrade. On the long bus trip he paused at Cetinje, where his brother, Aleksa, was doing his military service. They walked the night hours, pooling their resentment against society, and next morning at Sarajevo he exchanged his shabby clothing for a cheap new suit, the first he had ever owned with matching pants, “and felt ready to become a writer.”
The Great Depression of 1929, with its grave consequences to the peasants, had been followed by the dictatorship imposed by King Alexander, but in Belgrade the cafés were full and people were drinking “as if the world were submerged in prosperity.” Some drank out of anger and despair because the political life of the people had been stifled. It is notable that this early he formed his lifelong aversion to alcohol, an aversion which was to keep him clearheaded and critical years later in his Conversations with Stalin. He did not study much, he tells us, and put off learning Russian, which he did not master until he was in prison. He did read Marx, but Dostoevsky was the inspiration for the short stories he was publishing; and he was unruly, interrupting the class on poetry to invite everyone to join him in a strike. Professor Košutíc forgave him; he was, says Djilas, a poor poet but a good teacher. And it was in this class that he came to know Mitra, slender, pale, with large black eyes, the first girl he had ever been attracted to.
Their love was to sustain him as he took the lead in the dark discontent which gave rise to his generation of revolutionaries. He narrowly missed being captured in the first uprising of 1931, from which he fled to the country; when he returned, half ashamed, he was to find demonstrations of an aimless nature in progress, and he realized that the atmosphere was ripe for Communism. His recognition of a national aim, and his belief in Tito and the personal power so essential to the movement, were clear in his mind as early as 1938. In the fighting against the Nazis (he lost his father, two brothers, and two sisters), when the King had fled the country and Belgrade was in a shambles, there was no hope left for the old military machine. As he puts it, “If Tito, that is we Communists, were to set out to fight for power, to take over the army and the war, Tito had to speak openly.” And he did.
There are two obvious impediments in such a long work: the Yugoslav names which are difficult to remember and re-identify, and the many splinter movements that rise and fall. Despite these distractions, the first person singular is a commanding presence. Here then is the training for the furious days that followed, in which the Partisans fought a civil war, secured British aid, and finally threw the Germans out. How early the disillusion set in which caused his resignation from the Party and prompted the reordering of his thoughts in The New Class is a question one hopes he will deal with in a sequel to this strong and personal memoir.

WILD PITCH

by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.

Houghton Mifflin, $5.95

Ever since he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, with a year in which to test his ability as a fiction writer, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., has enjoyed the toil of a novelist and the rewards that rolled in after the publication of his picturesque novel of mountain men, The Big Sky. His new book, Wild Pitch, is of a later day and more restricted, a story of two murders perpetrated in the cow country the author knows so well, once open, but now fenced and interspersed with an occasional dude ranch, and retired folk like Professor Hawthorne, whose daughter is pretty enough to make any man look twice.
The story follows the reasoning of Jason Beard, a lanky youth, the pitcher for the town team, and the unpaid helper of the sheriff, Chick Charleston, whom he enormously admires. Jase, as the town calls him, accompanies the sheriff on his rounds, taking along a baseball to squeeze when there is no action, and making mental note of such interrogation as the sheriff wants reported. Jase is handy for odd jobs, and, along with his loyalty and selfimportance, he has a capacity for detection, not unerring, but persistent. Too young for the badge he would like to wear, he is a good kid to have along.
The sheriff’s office goes into high gear when Buster Hogue gets a bullet in his head, shot from ambush, at the town picnic. Hogue, one of the least popular men in the county, has made plenty of enemies in building up his stake of fifteen thousand acres and in letting his cattle feed on the grass of his neighbors. But he has emerged from his quarrels thus far with a whole hide. Now he hovers on the danger list and while Sheriff Charleston and his hanger-on are searching for clues, Hogue’s hostile neighbor, Ben Day, on the way to his mailbox, is tracked down and killed. There are no tears shed over him either, least of all by his abused wife, but when Hogue dies and there are no arrests, the State Crime Investigator comes from the city to add his brutal, blundering pressure to the search. It is Jason with his quick eye who finds the two cartridges, both fired by a Savage .303, a rifle which Professor Hawthorne acknowledges has been stolen from his valuable collection of old guns. He is the first of several suspects.
These are the crimes and the mystery. Like a young beagle, Jase follows a good many false scents before he ever sees a rabbit. The modest story is told mostly in the Western lingo, more amusing because of the constant ribbing to which the amateur sleuth is subjected. But Jase is not a fool, and when he has to move fast, his aim is good.