ACTS OF THEFT by Arthur A. Cohen


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Cohen's novels are always rich in ideas and philosophical byplay; and when his story is suitably entwined in literature and politics (as in A Hero in His Time, 1976), the result is lively, argumentative essay-fiction. Here, however, Cohen tackles the world of art--with rather less success. The novel focuses on the theft of Mayan figurines from a burial island off the Mexican coast in the 1950s. The culprit is Austrian sculptor Stefan Maguer, who has abandoned his title of Count and lives in a hacienda with his sophisticated French wife Alicia, a poet, and his Mexican mistress Mafia, a lovely child of the people. He steals pre-Columbian art to help pay the bills for this m‚nage … trois but also to express his rage that his talent is not the equal of his vision. In other words, he is in the throes of an exalted temper tantrum--and bad luck to the Mexicans. Hunting him down is his match in philosophical disquisitions, Baltasar Mariposa, a police inspector with an all-consuming love for the art of his Mayan ancestors. Lengthy flashbacks reveal Stefan's earlier life, including his trouble with a mad, syphilitic father, and his years in 1930s Paris--when he became obsessed with the work of Constantin Brancusi, even toiling as Brancusi's humble helper on a war memorial. The flashbacks shift to New York, where Stefan meets Alicia, and then to the Pacific Northwest, where the newlyweds live among the Kwakiutl Indians, whose superb carvings Stefan comes to envy. And finally, frightened away by a shaman at a potlatch, the couple descend to Mexico, to their present life made possible by crime. A promising enough story--but Cohen, eager to explore all the moral, ethical, and aesthetic considerations, lets his characters lapse into speechmaking, awash in theatrical stances and sentences that go on past comprehension (they sometimes seem like bad translations from the French). The result is obviously learned, occasionally illuminating, but most often contrived and stilted: an art-world novel more for lovers of verbal grandstanding than lovers of art.

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 1979
ISBN: 0226112500
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich