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Choose-Your-Own-Island

Rembrandt's Hat by Bernard Malamud Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $6.95

By Celia B. Betsky

EVERY MAN is an island. In Rembrandt's Hat, Bernard Malamud presents a choice new collection of short stories, and a view of a world where people are stranded and alone, isolated from one another, unable to make human contact, doomed by their inability to communicate. Without exception these stories are about a lack or a breakdown of communications between people, generations, ideologies and lifestyles.

Some individuals stand involuntarily exiled from society. Others pass like ships in the night, sometimes crashing into each other and sinking like the pitiful casualties they are, but more often cruising by with an air of indifference or self-involvement. There is little or no love left in the bleak world Malamud portrays. Neither strong hatred nor profound affection helps to close the numerous gaps he tears in the stuff of human relations.

Few attempts at communication can be foiled in so many and such subtle ways as in a politically repressive society, in a country where literature and culture must dance to the dictates of a totalitarian state. This is the situation drawn in the story "Man in the Drawer," where an American pays a visit to Soviet Russia and becomes unwillingly involved with the struggles of a Russian writer. Presented with the challenge of smuggling the Russian's forbidden stories out of the country, the American can respond only with fear and irritation. He wants to be left alone to lick the froth off the attractions of a tourist's Russia and to work out the personal problems he has tried to leave behind in America. "Like Isaac Babel, 'I am master of the genre of silence,'" the Russian sighs, but he is confronted only with the paranoiac hedging of the tourist, and the knowledge that he will never be able to impart his talent and ideas to the public of a country he perversely defends.

In attempting to show the universality of frustrated efforts at communication, Malamud is not afraid to make use of the simple device of actual notes and letters. Chafing at the bonds of retirement and imminent old age and death, a refined ex-doctor takes to reading the racy billetsdoux addressed to a sexy neighbor who has reawakened his sexual desires and romantic inclinations ("In Retirement"). At last, after all his furtiveness, the doctor works up courage enough to send his Dulcinea a polite little note, loaded with love and longing, only to be showered with the "swirling snow" of the note she tears into shreds and throws in his face.

MALAMUD also ventures into the looking-glass world of the insane, dipicting the play within a play of a mental institution that holds its inmates as prisoners from the outside world ("The Letter"). One particular patient stands sentinel at the gate leading to the outside, and tries to send out a "letter" in the form of an envelope containing several blank sheets of paper. Continually refused delivery by a young man who comes to visit his father, the missive is finally proferred as an invitation to "come back in here and hang around with the rest of us," because the visitor must be crazy, too.

Malamud forces his characters to live a night-marish existence, composed of the kind of nightmares based in awkward situations and perpetual uneasiness. Nothing can be more nervewracking for a guest at a dinner party than receiving suggestive little notes from a hostess who also happens to be his respected mentor's wife. Afraid lest he be caught receiving "Notes from a Lady at a Dinner Party," a young architect has to resort to the most difficult assortment of social acrobatics in accepting and reading the notes his hostess keeps slipping into his pocket. Their unusual correspondence culminates in a fumbling rendezvous in a closet. Were they to make contact, however, were they to touch each other even briefly in the throes of a clandestine relationship, they would break the rules of Malamud's game of Choose-Your-Own-Island. Instead, the architect realizes that his hostess is playing an empty, self-deceptive game:

Adler, just then, expected his pocket to burst into flame. She'll write them forever, he thought; that's her nature. If not to me, then to the next one who comes into the house who's done something she wishes she had. He made up his mind to leave the note unread.

Waltzing up against dead ends, blank faces and loneliness, Malamud's people are fated to develop into the agonizing absurdity of his "Talking Horse." With the Jewish name of Abramovitz, this circus freak bears all the historical suffering and doubts of his race, as well as the unique dilemma of wondering whether he is "a man in a horse or a horse that talks like a man." Opting for the former, Abramovitz devises an act of his own in which he begs the circus audience to set him free from the body of a horse and the tyranny of his Master, who fittingly is a dead-mute. Not surprisingly, Abramovitz's pleas are met only with titters of incomprehension and embarrassed silence. In a fight with his Master, he is liberated from his horse's body -- from the waist up. Good news would be unacceptable news for Malamud, so his hero becomes only half a man, cantering "across a grassy soft field into a dark wood, a free centaur."

A common form of torture in Malamud's visions of humanity is an overwhelming sense of impotence on the part of many of his characters, which burdens them with feelings of guilt and subsequently makes them do things without quite knowing why they do them. At times, a higher power seems responsible for certain acts, but gazing up to heaven or back to their Jewish heritage, most of his people have discovered that God is dead and that the only thing that guides them are their own doubts and confusion. The elderly doctor feels "powerless to be other than he was," and this realization eventually dawns on most.

ISOLATION comes in these stories from being a social misfit, or from being caught in the conflict between new ways and old beliefs, prejudices and fears, the battle between rationality and mysticism, the widening gap between generations. In "My Son the Murderer," a father becomes obsessed with the conduct of his college-graduate son who speaks to no one, sits in his room or takes aimless walks, and tears up letters written to him by his girlfriend. Looking at the situation through the father's puzzled eyes, Malamud holds up little hope for the younger generation. Resignedly the father discovers a sorrowful variation of the stock Jewish-American term, "my son the doctor." Trailing his son from bedroom to kitchen, from apartment to Brighton Beach, he finds that he cannot take pride in "my son who made himself into a lonely man."

Lonely men walk Malamud's streets, inhabit his cities, kill each other with indifference. Only in the title story is some form of communication accomplished, but it rests in an uneasy truce. A "Rembrandt's Hat" graces the head of a man who wears it "like a crown of failure and hope." Malamud has a gift for fleshing out the lives of conventional failures who provide unconventional wisdoms about hope that lies even in the depths of isolation. Aloneness implies individuality, and it is this that Malamud explores so beautifully in the island-voyage of Rembrandt's Hat.

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