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Unlike many metaphysical novelists who wrestle doggedly with mighty cosmologies to the neglect of a story and the other civilities of fiction, Gary still offers entertainment. Although less reliant here on irony (The Dance of Ghengis Cohn, 1968) or gimmickry (The Gasp, 1973), Gary continues to animate his characters--who could so easily have become turgid with the supernal messages they bear--via pungent diction and an antic zest for impossible notions and picaresque journeys. The narrator, Fosco Zaga, writing in the 1960s, is one of a long line of brilliant charlatans, magicians, alchemists and actors--all those who use illusion to protect humanity from itself. He tells the story of his childhood, youth and maturity in the Russia of Catherine the Great. There this scion of the Zaga family traveled with his father, the master illusionist Guiseppe, and his father's frigid young wife Teresina (whom Fosca loved), through 18th century Russia. (Russia's national stability depended upon the relief of Queen Catherine's constipation--on such events the destiny of peoples often depends.) Fosco acquires the priceless treasure of the Zaga Book of Truth and Hope, with its blank pages ""not yet damaged by final pronouncement, hypothesis, formulation, credo, symbol, dogma,"" etc. But Guiseppe, Teresina and Fosco face dangers: Fosco can never consummate his love for Teresina, else she will die of reality; Teresina brings them to the brink of destruction by succumbing to a political fanatic who finds bloody final solutions; and Guiseppe admits the existence of death. At the close Fosco, now in full possession of the Zaga powers, escapes from mortality through a black forest which he causes to ""echo with a thousand bird songs. . . a luminous Italian spring. . .'' to the tunes of Jewish fiddlers. He only glances at the ""sinister make-believe"" of his father's placing Teresina's body in the ground. A rainbow bridge of fantastic sights and speculations.

Pub Date: June 12th, 1975
Publisher: Putnam