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Telling the Infinite Story

Araror By D. M. Thomas Viking Press; 191 pp.; $13.50

By Kathleen I. Kouril

There comes a moment in life, perhaps more than one, when it is possible to detect a subtle understanding, a mystifying clarity of awareness. More often than not it vanishes as quickly as it appears. But during it one senses the interconnectedness of things, the flow and pulse of the collective subconscious--what in another age was called the "quick" of life. A transcendent moment like this reveals the order or chaos behind life; it generally makes one feel inconsequential, a minute speck in the cosmic scheme. This essentially romantic notion was perhaps best delineated by Emerson in his famous description of the transparent eye half, which because it sees all and through all in the natural world, is connected to everything in nature.

The sharp edge of grief--the death of a parent, for instance--may slice through one's day-to-day sensibilities. Personal tragedy becomes linked to universal--to war to cruelty, to the inevitability of death it self. Similarly, a supremely wonderful or insightful moment may spark a feeling of simpatico towards humankind in general, a sense that maybe, at that moment a fellow on the other side of the earth is thinking the exact same thought. D. M. Thomas understands these moments, and it is his particular gift to be able, in his writing, to reveal and explore this pulse that binds one being to another.

Arorot--like The White Hotel. Thomas's phenomenal best-seller published in 1981--focuses on this pulse. Such moments crop up often:

Below him a host of white, fleecy clouds drifted like icebergs in the ocean of air. The real ocean lay so far because it could not be seen. Dreamily at first, hailed by the steady drone of the engines, Surkov gazed down and around him. How fragile, minute, meaningless was his life, flying over this great expense.

Like the earlier work, Ararat is a combination of prose and poetry, original material and translation, exploring the connections between consciousness and holocaust, sex and death. But whereas The White Hotel connected these themes with a pulse all its own, Ararat, like the Armenian landscape from which it is drawn, is a much drier work. The tremendous stream of poetry in The White Hotel, the sexually surreal "Don Giovanni" portion as well as the deafening violence of the Babi Yar testimony, collaborated to overwhelm the reader. This sensory overload created a flow or wave of feeling, which after it had receded, left the reader feeling a part of the world which he had just experienced--the world of Freud and the Holocaust.

In contrast to the warm afterglow of The White Hotel, some critics have said Ararat leaves them cold That's fair enough, there is no Whitmanesque rush of consciousness flowing through these pages. If The White Hotel was a wave of feeling. Ararat is that wave caught on a canvas and framed. Other critics have com- pared it to a web of interconnected symbols and mentioned for scientific study setting forth connections and order.

He's right Surkov reflected Darwinism doesn't explain it. To create all this mysterious existence in only ten thousand million years--the merest blink of an eye. The spontaneous creation of order like the improvisatore's "Cleopatra" No, I can't believe it. It may have happened by impulse, but it's not random.

Ararta is an elegant construct, a story of form and connections about forms and connections. It is a story whinin a story within a story Rather than the easy metaphor--a series of Russian dolls which unscrew to reveal yet another doll inside-an elegant computer program with multiple subroutines comes closer to characterizing the work.

The outermost story is that of Sergei Rozanov, a Russian poet who travels to Gorky to sleep with a blind woman who'd written him a fan letter. The encounter becomes tiresome, yet Rozanov feels duty-bound to the entire night with the woman. In an attempt to make the hours pass, he improves a story for her on the theme of "improvisation"

His story begins with the tale of three writers, a Russian an Armenian and an American woman, who are snack in an Armenian hotel and agree to improvise a story on a common subject. One writer tells the story of Sarkov, a Russian poet on his way to American by sea. On board ship feeling quite ill, Surkov often becomes delirious and imagines himself to be Pushkin. Also in a rather hallucinatory way he runs into the ubiquitous Finn, Satanic old man who has taken part in all of the world's great massacres. In this milieu, Surkov sits down to finish composing Pushkin's fragment of a story entitled. "Egyptian Nights."

Pusshkin's tale involves a Russian poet, Charsky, who befriends an Italian improvisatore. The Italian tells yet another story, "Cleopatra and Her Lovers," in which Cleopatra agrees to take as a lover for one night my man who is willing to die the next morning. The runic twist at the end of the Cleopatra story is the essence of Thomas central theme--the link between creativity, consciousness and death. "Sex, of course," Thomas once wrote, "includes all creativity, and death includes its own vanquishing."

Returning to the three writers in the Armenian hotel room, the second writer also tells the tale of Surkov, this travelling to American woman, does not improvise a story at all but rather explains what it was that brought them all together in the first place--Ararat. The mountain Ararat, sacred to Armenians, is the symbol that connects the three writers, as indeed, it connects all the levels of the novel.

The subject of Ararat is art, for that peculiar pulse is nothing if not creativity, and creativity is nothing if not the urge to live. Thomas manipulates his art in this novel so as not to knock the reader over with emotion as in The White Hotel, but rather to show him the structure behind that impervious force. Thomas achieves this unveiling partly through his language, which, though elegant and fragile, is not as colorful or as powerful as that in The White Hotel. Equally important are the characterizations. In The White Hotel, Lisa Erdman and Freud were a haunting, even inspiring pair, but Surkov, Rozanov and Finn run the gamut from merely distasteful to completely horrifying.

The White Hotel was seen as a breakthrough novel partly because of its portrait of one of the most honest and complicated female characters in recent fiction. In Ararat, by contrast, the reader has to contend with many different voices, a new one at each level of storytelling. Furthermore, these voices are generally those of unpleasant men or stereotypical, one-dimensional women Cleopatra, it turns out, is the most complicated female character in the entire work.

Yet this is intentional. For if Ararat is the grand story of art and consciousness and history, it is also the not-so-grand story of the artist. Thomas presents the irritating structure and forms of writing itself--bursts of creativity, exhaustion, editors, censorship; each of his storytellers reveals one side of the complete artist, and their greed and selfishness are an essential part of any artist or indeed any person. These poets grab at life, they are greedy to create, to live. They, like all people, deny death by creating--through sex, through writing, through life itself.

This is the connection, the pulse that Thomas sees in Ararat. Art is the medium through which the order and connections in the universe may be revealed. As Surkov says to Finn;

One's life becomes increasingly fictional in middle age. I find There's no longer a great difference between real life and fiction. But that's a feature of our age generally, don't you think Fiction seems tame compared with reality, and people's reality is so fantastic it seems like fiction.

In that case, Thomas' fiction does not fit the mold, for it enhances reality, brings it alarmingly close. His fiction is never tame, perhaps because it is essentially poetry, and powerful poetry at that--poetry brought under the control of a prose form.

Thomas has done more even than that. He has man aged to translate the chaotic and powerful world of the subconscious to the more accessible arena of art. With Ararat, he brings creativity, death, the horror of history and the flow of psychology together under the microscope. And for one brief moment he brings the pulse, the tie that binds, into focus.

The subject of Ararat is art, for that peculiar pulse is nothing it not creativity is nothing if not the urge to live. D.M. THOMAS

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