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BOOK REVIEW / Naming the game in two private lives: Brothers Carmelo Samona - Tr. Linda Lappin Carcanet pounds 13.95

'FOR MANY YEARS now I have been living in an old flat in the heart of the city with my brother, who is ill.' This deliberately sombre and underwritten opening line will not be a candidate for an anthology of memorable first lines, but it establishes the tone and style of a remarkable novel whose power and appeal arise, paradoxically, from its unremitting, even stifling claustrophobia.

Carmelo Samona was Sicilian, and while most of the novels from that troubled island have been distinguished by their engagement with public affairs, he focuses on a sphere of life as intimate and private, in its own idiosyncratic way, as any described by Jean Rhys.

Nothing from history or the world outside is allowed to intrude. The flat is the exclusive site for such action as occurs; the two brothers, who are given no names, never leave it except for a daily outing to the park. A 'woman with a lame dog' may have played some part in the life of the two, but this is not certain and no other human beings appear in these pages.

Of the two brothers, one suffers from an unnamed disease which could be tagged broadly as 'schizoid' and the other, the observernarrator, is bound to him by ties of habit, family obligation and intellectual curiosity. The schizoid brother lives in a dimension accessible to himself alone, where make-believe and reality blur, where play and utility overlap, where performance and rational behaviour are indistinguishable. His day is divided for him between Little Journeys and Great Journeys, where the former are games and ruses devised to facilitate the primary business of living, such as dressing, eating or exercising, and the latter the flight into an alternative realm which is the principal symptom of his disease.

For the ill brother, as the narrator observes with fascination, all life is some form of stage. Initially he excitedly surrenders himself to fairy tales or to the world of Verdi's operas, but in a sudden and unexplained moment of lucidity, he declares that these childish games hold no further appeal. Other journeys have to be improvised, often based on a variety of hide-and-seek.

The narrator abandons himself, enthusiastically or reluctantly, to these diversions, concealing himself in darkened rooms, assuming the role of an enemy who must be eliminated, exchanging clothes when his brother demands it, and following him, at least in spirit, into those imaginary realms where he has his being. Their lives are measured out in events, such as tantrums or being lost on the daily excursion, which are not in any way exceptional or dramatic.

In the absence of drama or development, the tone of the essay predominates. The narrator finds himself compelled to reassess his own beliefs and to wonder if the play element and the imaginary dimension of his brother's ill fantasies are not more secure representations of reality than his own more conventional notions. In the unending chases and quests at home, the hunted has the advantage of a firm sense of himself while the narrator, who plays the part of hunter, increasingly loses the secure sense of what he will find and of what he is himself.

The ill brother, following inner promptings perceived by him alone, constructs a world with rules comprehensible at least to him, while the narrator loses his initial confidence in an external world of 'cause and effect' and of objects and codes accessible to all.

The words insanity or madness are never used, and if Samona avoids the weary cliche of depicting insanity as more sane than sanity, the narrator finds his own certainties evaporating as divisions between Great and Little Journeys, between public and private domains, between arbitrarily created and rationally observed reality begin to erode.

All events are filtered through the consciousness of the healthy brother, with narration and description giving way to sceptical analysis and baffled reflection. The tone is surprisingly austere, perhaps because the underlying belief - that the brother's illness is simply one possible condition of life among the many which afflict human beings - makes any appeal for compassion senseless. The main feature of the novel is its speculative quality, its quest from an unfamiliar perspective for understanding of what makes the individual distinct.