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    Foreign correspondence

    By PHILIP HERTER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


    THE ALPHONSE COURRIER AFFAIR, by Marta Morazzoni, translated by Emma Rose (Harvill Press, $15)

    "A village," writes Marta Morazzoni, "is a social structure founded, for better or worse, on sharing . . ." Morazzoni's superb novel, winner of Italy's Campiello Prize, is a slyly hilarious tale of a village shopkeeper and the double life he leads. Alphonse Courrier is an iron-monger in a small French village populated by chin-wags, busybodies and snoops. His neighbors are outwardly pious and meek, the most terrifying race on earth and one untroubled by fear of extinction. The Alphonse Courrier Affair is a tremendously well-crafted novel, perfectly paced and displaying meticulous language and razor wit. As Alphonse's neatly compartmentalized world rattles apart around him, village life goes on implacably and with horrifying regularity. In its brief chapters, The Alphonse Courrier Affair has more to teach than several books on philosophy and ethics, and does so with a sharp-eyed style that is testament to the author's skill. Marta Morazzoni is the author of two other novels, The Girl in a Turban and His Mothers House. The Alphonse Courrier Affair marks her as writer and observer of humanity to watch and learn from.

    WILD KIDS, by Chang Ta-Chun, translated by Michael Berry (Columbia University Press, $22.95)

    Chang Ta-Chun is a star in Taiwan, a talk show host, regular columnist for the local papers and best-selling author. Wild Kids, a pair of short novels published together, marks Chang's debut in English. The first, My Kid Sister, is a Bildungsroman of a Taiwanese Holden Caulfield whose wry look back onto his life is triggered by his (now teenage) sister's visit to an abortion clinic. The second, Wild Kids, was made into a popular television mini-series and recounts the tough lives of a group dead-end kids from the 1980s, a period of tumultuous social, political and economic upheaval in Taiwan. Chang writes about growing up in a fast-changing society, where parents divorce, teenagers get in trouble and old folks don't have clue. These bright narratives are a splendid introduction to a writer in touch with smart young characters trying to adjust to the modern world, even as the old society hangs on. With his informal, smart-alecky style, Ta-Chun Chang's popularity is easy to understand. Illustrated with cartoon chapter headings, Wild Kids is a fascinating introduction to the work one of Asia's authentic literary phenomena.

    Philip Herter is a writer who lives in New York City.

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