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Fourteen extremely uneven stories, by the author of The Ballad of Typhoid Mary (1983), mostly set in his native Switzerland, that have been taken from collections published in German in 1961, 1966 and 1973. The 1973 stories are all based on confrontations between a disgruntled first-person narrator and his gross, buffoonish, perhaps imaginary friend, Paratuga. In the title story, the narrator reads obsessively from the history of earthquakes, including the lootings in Managua and inhumane treatment of Chinese in San Francisco and Jews in Basel during times of general social deterioration that, in his opinion, may have brought on the quakes. Meanwhile, Paratuga, in drag, opens a wax museum featuring dummies of the narrator's ancestors; a quake is threatened but never happens; and the narrator summarily concludes, ""It takes an earthquake to reveal man's true nature."" In other stories, Paratuga introduces the narrator to ""Hitler's Daughter"" (really the child of refugees), and to a young Turk who has sexually tickled his three middle-aged wives to death. Earlier stories try ""surprise"" plot twists: a little girl who is dragged by fat repulsive aunts to her father's funeral happily witnesses them blown to bits by a sudden wind; a delinquent runs away from home, planning to beat and rob, but ends up charmed by the man who gives him a lift, buys him breakfast and tells stories of the South and adventure. Two standout stories, both concerned with the aftereffects of WW II, cannot, alas, redeem the rest. In ""The Sapper: A Romance,"" a little girl on an Alpine outing gets her foot stuck in the wires of a land mine; the crisis works a reconciliation between the uncle of the trapped girl and an unkempt, ex-demolitions-expert. In ""Oranges on Her Windowsill,"" a quiet story of repentance, a former Nazi returns to Paris to rent an apartment that was the scene of one of his war crimes. Overall, the subject matter here is uniformedly grim, the plots obscure; and the characters, a down-in-the-mouth lot, oddly predictable in their alienation. And the predominantly surreal stories read like a succession of throwaway lines, delivered with a flatness not even awkward translation can excuse.

Pub Date: April 3rd, 1986
Publisher: Dutton