BOOK REVIEW / Symbols that dog everyday life: In a hotel garden - Gabriel Josipovici Carcanet pounds 12.95

BEN IS the kind of person who regularly troubles his friends for advice without ever taking it. 'Is it just me,' he muses, 'or is it our whole society . . . that makes us have to decide all the time?' A textbook case of emotional vacillation, Ben is afraid to come to the point in case it turns out not to exist. On holiday in the Alto Adige, Ben finds that his affair with Sandra is rapidly dying out, as she takes issue with the weather, the hotel, the way the tea is served (each problem carrying equal weight in their neutral world). Ben quickly becomes fixated with Liliana, who has wisely left her partner at home and come in search of a piece of her past, the garden in Siena where her Jewish grandmother from Constantinople was engaged in conversation by a young man at the other end of the century.

Once he gets back home, the only past Ben can muster is a distracted retelling of those meetings with Liliana (Sandra simply disappears from the narrative). Rick and Francesca, who represent the companionable stability that Ben's own home life doesn't provide, listen to his story at the family dinner table. Like In A Hotel Garden itself, Ben is all saying and little doing. Factual, steady lines of dialogue link the old friends, without filling anything in. When Rick and Ben go out to the common to walk the dog, its antics and disobedience punctuate the conversation, but we never know the animal's breed, colour or size. It is simply 'dog', and in much the same way the people are not particularised - question marks more than characters.

But none the less the ciphers are powerful: Liliana's dog draws her back to her life in London. And events themselves quickly become symbolic. When Ben surveys the turmoil in his flat after Sandra's sudden, final departure, 'it was chaos telling you it was chaos'.

But behind the understatements lie larger histories. Largest of all is the shadow of the Holocaust, falling between Liliana and her great- grandparents' own tourism. There is the suspicion that the man in the Sienese garden might have been Liliana's real grandfather. Then it transpires that the dates wouldn't have fitted, and eventually Liliana wonders if she even visited the right garden.

When she agrees to meet Ben in London for a walk along the Thames, her main purpose is to make that doubt clear to him. She has overcome a crisis which she never confided in him and returned to her own life. Ben, on the other hand, is left in an apologetic limbo.

Josipovici stretches out the ambiguities of conversation - with strangers and friends alike - with intriguing aptness. The narrative holds the attention, but hints at motives and desires are left vague. Instead of pulling together historical threads, the book leaves the reader with a group of everyday people failing to come to grips with life's imponderables.

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