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Foreign correspondence

By PHILIP HERTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000


THE ARCH OF KERGUELEN: Voyage to the Islands of Desolation, by Jean-Paul Kauffmann, translated by Patricia Clancy (Four Walls Eight Windows, $23)

French author Jean-Paul Kauffmann is a poet of desolation. As a follow up to his acclaimed Napoleon's Room at Longwood, a meditation on the emperor's lonely demise which was a finalist for a National Books Critic Circle Award, The Arch of Kerguelen takes him to one of the remotest outposts in the world. The islands of desolation have a fascinating history, and Kauffmann presents his research in brisk, stylish prose. But the author's real interest in these dreary, sub-antarctic specks in the southern Indian Ocean is as a jumping off place for a personal investigation into (among other things) walkie-talkies, the difference between travel and exile, the peculiarities of French colonial culture and the metaphysical beauty of monotony. Kauffmann, once held hostage in Lebanon, is an astute and entertaining guide. An expert in ennui, a master at malaise, he is a seasoned traveler who understands that the most indispensable prelude to (knowing) any country is waiting and boredom. A travel writer like no other, Jean-Paul Kauffmann ventures through The Arch of Kerguelen to discover the loneliness at the center of the human heart.

THE GARDEN OF SECRETS, by Juan Goytisolo, translated by Peter Bush (Serpents Tail, $24)

Spanish author Goytisolo's novel-in-stories is a multifaceted fictional gem cloaked in a mysterious variety of narratives. The garden of the title is where 28 storytellers from all walks of life gather to recount the history of a poet named Eusebio, arrested in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. The narrative conceit of a separate chapter for each tellers tale produces a whole more marvelous than its parts. Eusebio's life, imprisonment and escape are recounted with varying degrees of credulity in a kind of tag-team Thousand and One Nights, leaving readers to make their own judgments about an era, and government, that produced such dubious recollections. The Garden of Secrets shows Juan Goytisolo, whose work was banned under the Franco dictatorship, as a writer of great range and inventiveness. The Garden of Secrets has much to say about the nature of truth, the ultimate power of fiction over history and the interplay of the two. Not incidentally, The Garden of Secrets is a page-turning tale of an average man caught in war.

-- Philip Herter writes frequently about international literature.

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