BOOK REVIEW / Children of two nations: 'The Long Night of White Chickens' - Francisco Goldman: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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FRANCISCO GOLDMAN's first novel has been ecstatically received in America and will no doubt appeal just as strongly to liberal sensibilities elsewhere. A Guatemalan-American, Goldman is concerned to record the nightmare of Guatemala, a country writhing under a bloody and corrupt regime. W B Yeats, writing in 1919 of a dazed and divided Ireland, described a people who could no longer speak of 'honour and of truth', but who 'Shriek with pleasure if we show / The weasel's twist, the weasel's tooth.' Francisco Goldman similarly confronts psychic demoralisation on a national scale.

The narrator, Roger Graetz, is also the product of two cultures. His maternal heritage includes tropical indolence, Guatemalan family pride, the squealing tyres of death-squads in the night. He is equally formed by the bracing Bostonian background of his Jewish father, although it is the bright promise of the US that covertly funds the atrocities in Central America. From infancy Roger is obsessed with Flor, a Guatemalan orphan originally brought to Boston as a maid, who flowers into a much loved sister and, eventually, a Wellesley graduate.

Flor is drawn to Guatemala, where she runs an orphanage, arranging legal adoptions until her murder in 1983. Was she really guilty of selling children illegally, as her detractors claim? Or was she a scapegoat, murdered to deflect suspicion from just such a baby-farming operation? Roger joins up with his old schoolfriend Moya in an attempt to unravel the mystery. Along the way they reveal the tortuous nature of their dual relationship with a tortured country and with Flor herself, a woman emblematic of Guatemala's primitive past and cruel present, its increasing Americanisation and its essential unknowability.

This novel is as tightly woven as a winding sheet. Goldman reveals an extraordinary virtuosity in his manipulation of imagery, and his language is resonant. For example, when Moya and Roger meet as schoolboys they dare each other into an encounter with a mad dog. Later, a fateful adult encounter occurs on the day all the traffic systems in Guatemala City are changed, leading to unprecedented chaos and death.

There is a similar metaphorical richness with Flor, who for all her norte-americano education makes slight, endearing mistakes in English: she says 'gardner' for 'garner' and 'minstral' for 'mistral' (she is also a minstrel in the Pied Piper sense, and even a mistral - a strong, ominous wind blowing through her country). Such labyrinthine complexity permeates the book, evoking the Minotaur myth, faintly suggesting Borges and conjuring a political hall of mirrors with never-ending reflections - rumours, whispers, deceitful stratagems.

It seems mean-spirited to carp when a writer has the courage to grab his world by the throat like this, but one is also aware of a deficiency of feeling here. The book is so cleverly controlled, and so go-gettingly ambitious, that there is little space for anything beyond its own literary fervour: it cannot do justice to the 'bottomless grief' of the country it evokes. Flannery O'Connor once observed: 'There's a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without'. She meant simplicity. Goldman's intellectual fireworks are insufficient to express tragedy; they preclude lasting majesty, terror and awe.

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