BOOK REVIEW / Old taboos hidden away in a dark corner: The Jewess - Irene Dische: Bloomsbury pounds 13.99

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MODERN Germany - a tableau of old conflicts, confused identities, racial enmities, guilt and deceit - forms the backdrop for Irene Dische's 14 short stories collected in The Jewess. There is, of course, nothing new about the subject matter, but never before has it been covered so whimsically, with such morbid humour, as in these small tales of doctors, invalids and shopkeepers.

The child of German and Austrian immigrants, Irene Dische grew up in the 'Fourth Reich', Manhattan's German- Jewish community. She now lives in Berlin and has made Germany her cultural home. But rather than embracing the new fatherland, she prefers to deal in its old taboos, to shine light in the dark corners and see what scuttles away.

Her first novel, Pious Secrets, the story of a German immigrant in post-war New York who is suspected of being the Fuhrer, sold an astonishing 80,000 copies in Germany. The squirming discomfort that Germans feel about their historical identity continues as the theme of The Jewess.

The title story concerns Charles Allen, a staid and affluent American Jew, who travels to Berlin to claim his inheritance - a small antiques shop left him by his father, Johannes Allerhand. Here he encounters the cantankerous Esther, his father's mistress, steeped in the lore and language of European Jewry. What unfolds is an illustration of the conflict between two groups of Jewish survivors. On one side is what Bruno Bettelheim called the 'ghetto thinking' of those who stayed and suffered; on the other, the cosmopolitan New Yorkers who have been assimilated into gentile society.

Esther taunts Charles for his Anglicised name and his conversion to Catholicism; but as in all the stories, identities and appearances are deceptive. 'Esther' is revealed as 'Margaret' - not a model Jewess, but a strangely disguised Aryan, a product of Lebensborn, the Nazi plan to breed children from SS officers and racially pure mothers.

Dische enjoys the snap ending, but it is her descriptions of idiosyncratic behaviour that give the stories their richness. One character, Frau Knobel, recalls her time in the war as a Trummerfrau, one of the Berlin housewives who with German efficiency cleared the streets after the air raids, so that the invading Russians found a neatly destroyed city with its piles of debris tidily arranged.

Dische's account of life on the Communist side of the wall reveals a world where apparently irrational behaviour becomes the norm. In the climate of continued shortages, the notion of buying for your needs is nonsense; rather, people buy in bulk according to availability - so it is that one couple, spotting a rare delivery of raisins, feel duty bound to buy and eat the entire shipment. From then on, even the word 'raisin' makes them gag.

Skipping between New York and Berlin, forward and backwards in recent history, the stories are all told with dispassionate bareness. The most appalling human catastrophes, rape and suicide, are described in the most meagre sentences. The stories in The Jewess touch on many things, although sometimes the construction is so simple, and the end result so inconsequential, that you wonder if you've missed the point.

By far the most entertaining tale is 'The Smuggled Wedding Ring', a fast- moving farce involving a Russian maid and her German employer. It illustrates Irene Dische's strengths: her keen eye for historical detail, for the kinds of random confusion that can occur across cultural boundaries.

None the less, as elsewhere in the book, the characters here tend to be convincing as illustrations of a type rather than as individuals. Like a pathologist, Dische can identify the intricacies of human behaviour without necessarily being able to breathe life into them. Some of the stories become merely devices that work towards the final pay-off. They stand or fall on that - but when they do work, they work marvellously.