BOOK REVIEW / Waiting rooms of death: 'Black Milk' - David Hartnett: Jonathan Cape, 9.99

ABOVE ALL, everybody knows how this one's going to pan out. For his first novel, after three volumes of poetry, David Hartnett has set himself the task of making fiction around the Holocaust. Passing swiftly over the cynical observation that this looks like a quick bid for the big time, we are faced with the question of what this contender is trying to bring to this gravitational centre of history that is new.

His approach is to look at the penultimate stage of genocide, the concentration of Jews in the ghettoes of Eastern Europe. The process at first appeared to fulfil the goal of 'resettlement to the East'; only then did its victims become aware that itwas to be completed with a second 'resettlement'. Some of them might have been able to deny the intimations of its true nature, but the realisation that it was a one-way process was unavoidable.

Although the ghettoes were the waiting rooms for the death chambers, they were invested with the trappings of miniature states - police, industry, press, culture - all grotesquely distorted to serve the hidden goal of genocide. This is the setting in which Hartnett places his protagonists. A woman from Vienna re-encounters an old lover, who is now a functionary of the puppet Jewish council; her teenage son falls in with the youthful resistance, all the while realising its futility. Over the entire ghetto hangs the probability that efforts of all kinds are equally futile.

Similarly, too, there is an inevitability about the way in which the novel is crushed under its subject, too monstrous and too close to cope with, but also too distant for its author to be able to recall. While it is true that life in the ghettoes is a relatively neglected aspect of the Holocaust, the choice of setting feels more like an answer to a literary problem than to one of historical memory. The forces binding and dividing individuals could have been depicted in the setting of a camp with equal credibility. For the novel, though, the ghetto is liberation. At least the characters and the narrative - effective and well directed in itself - are not obliterated under the all-dominating images of the camps' gates, the railway, the chimneys.

Possibly uniquely, the power of these images has not been diminished by time and familiarity. As time passes, and living memory is extinguished, it probably will be. But its endurance, linked as it is with numerous first-hand testimonies, would seemto imply that the time for literary re- tellings of the Holocaust has not yet arrived.