A MASS FOR ARRAS by Andrzej Szczypiorski


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 Szczypiorski (The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, 1990) reaches back to an anti-Semitic persecution in 15th-century Brabant for this allegory, first published in Poland in 1970, of the seductive appeal of totalitarianism. Three years after a plague in 1458 wiped out a fifth of its inhabitants, the Burgundian town of Arras is plunged into political frenzy by the death of a horse after its owner was allegedly cursed by his Jewish neighbor Tselus. Arrested and interrogated, Tselus kills himself before charges can be preferred, but the townspeople, seized by rabid anti-Semitism, proceed to rob, exile, and kill not only the local Jews but anyone who expresses sympathy for them, offers criticism of the new orthodoxy of hysteria, or, finally, shows any threateningly aberrant behavior: feeding Jewish citizens, debauchery, conducting scientific dissections. The parallels with the rise of Fascism are obvious, but Szczypiorski, who's after something more subtle, focuses on the running debate between Albert, the holy elder who argues first that purging the town's Jewish presence doesn't purge its evil inclinations--and then, on his deathbed, that he sought to lead the town to freedom through an experience of ``the bitterness of evil''--and the royal bastard Prince David, the absentee Bishop of Utrecht, who begins by speaking for rationality but ends by declaring a ``Sunday of Forgiveness, Cancellation, and Forgetting'' that will render the whole ugly episode null and void. The fulcrum of this debate is a lordly, sensitive student named Jan, who's torn between his loyalty to both Albert and David. Only after he himself is arrested on trumped-up charges does he find his concern for his own and the town's welfare colliding with the need for collective memory, however much in conflict it is with individual experience. But don't be put off by such an abstract summary: this is really a dramatic fable that looks back to Kafka's allegories, and behind them to Dostoyevsky's ``Grand Inquisitor.''

Pub Date: July 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-8021-1173-4
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1993