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A captivating novel that builds an allegory about the coming of the Holocaust out of a magical fable about a young boy in a Jewish ghetto saddled with a guardian elephant everyone but him can see. By an acclaimed French novelist making his English-language debut with this French best-seller. Vilmo Naftali creates the elephant out of a white lie, needing a culprit for the destruction of a bush his penitent father has planted as a sign to God that Vilmo will redeem the family. To Vilmo's consternation, his father accepts the lie, and the next day at school Vilmo becomes a star as the enchanted teacher directs the class into a study of the elephant. Thus launched into fable, Gerber's rich imagination playfully transforms all the elements of an ordinary childhood--from bullies and friends to first loves. One comic scene even evokes Charlie Chaplin as the shy father tries to explain sexual intercourse by raising and lowering his hat, walking in and out of the door, etc. The cast also includes Yagel, the foul-mouthed older brother who dreams of emigrating to Chicago to become a gangster; and a Senegalese accordion player who serenades Vilmo's older sister every night from the sidewalk. The novel gains in allegorical weight as disputes over the elephant's existence broaden and grow bitter--Jews see him, others don't--but not until the very end does the grimness of history fully eclipse the insular, enchanted world of Vilmo and his family. An adoring cousin to the literature of Eastern Europe (the lighter Kafka of Amerika, I.B. Singer), this is a novel that stands also on its own as a highly affecting, comic and original work.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1987
Publisher: Mercury--dist. by Kampmann (9 East 40 St., New York, NY 10016)