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The Boston Phoenix Innocence Lost

Memories of violence and hardship haunts a woman, her husband, and her lover in postwar Paris

By David Valdes Greenwood

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: 

The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston. Steerforth Books, 222 pages, $21.

Nancy Huston's new novel takes its title from the cleft above a baby's lip, which is said to be the spot the angels touch on newborns to wipe away memories of heaven. With those memories, all previous knowledge is supposed to disappear; the child is then an "innocent," a blank slate upon which the future may be etched. But when a child is born into the world of post-World War II Europe, as in The Mark of the Angel, innocence is necessarily doomed.

Huston, who wrote and published this novel in French and then translated it into English, has given readers three compelling characters to contemplate. The protagonist is Saffie, a German expatriate in Paris. She may seem emotionally frozen, but that does not dissuade Raphael, a concert flautist, from proposing nearly on sight and making her a French citizen through marriage. The novel traces their hot-and-cold union through the birth of their son, Emil, and through years of Saffie's affair with Andras, a Hungarian who repairs Raphael's flutes and supports the underground pro-Algerian rebels in the protracted French-Algerian conflict.

Saffie carries with her enormous hurts that she reveals slowly, elliptically ("as it turned out her mother found a different way to use sheets," is our first hint of her mother's suicide). The war brought Saffie loss and incredible physical hardship, worsened by family secrets that revealed themselves just when she thought she couldn't take another blow. As she sleepwalks through her Paris life, housecleaning with a terrible frenzy, initially unhappy about her pregnancy, our sympathies are with her. When she slowly begins to thaw after a taste of passion, we cheer.

Saffie's iron survival instincts are beautiful enough to make Andras, a Jew and a would-be freedom fighter, fall in love with her, but the eventual revelation of her stories infuriates him: what is her suffering next to that of the Jews? This split view of his lover lies like a land mine between Andras and Saffie and adds to the gravity of the novel. By contrast, Raphael seems almost like comic relief, a man so deeply in denial about his wife that he can turn her stony silence into an asset, noting "how virtually everything people say in the course of a day is superfluous."

Emil, then, is raised with two fathers, one of whom he must never tell about the other; the boy is caught from birth in a web of deceit, split identity, and emotional peril. He is the tiny hinge connecting a man being used, a woman with nightmares of violence, and a rebel who dedicates himself to a far-off war as a way of dealing with his rage about the Holocaust. This intersection would be a dangerous place for an adult, never mind a child, and the novel eventually becomes the successful opposite of a page-turner: the tension gets so profound that one is afraid to turn the page, fearful for these characters.

Huston achieves this effect with more than just a good story and good characters. Her language is beautiful, with startling juxtapositions of imagery (catching tadpoles in bomb craters) and musical phrasing. This, for example, is one of Saffie's memories: "Gust blast gust blast, the organ pipes twisted and melted, the careful stores of wood and hay consumed in cracking stinking minutes -- flames are still licking at the shacks and sheds -- the blue sky is choked with gray and the only air left to breathe is ash."

Despite her dark subjects, Huston deploys considerable wit in these pages. She offers a lengthy description of how much better French public services are now than they were during the '50s, and it is about halfway through her riff that you realize she is about as straight-faced as Jonathan Swift in her assessment ("moist-eyed" employees, who "by Jove . . . get down to those problems of yours and . . . get them solved"). Turns of phrase such as "consummate torture of food shortages" make perfect straightforward sense and then amuse you several moments later when the wordplay finally registers.

If there is any flaw here, it lies with some of the author's asides, which are very much in the vein of the "Dear Reader" buttonholing of a century ago. When she steps outside the story to intone, "Ah. So the dragon hasn't been vanquished by the pure, shining blade of the other person's love," the device is not only too precious, but a bit superfluous. But for the most part, fortunately, these interruptions are manageable and increase the already considerable tension.

As the noose grows tighter around our trio of adults and the boy in their keeping, we begin to realize that the long-armed horrors of war will ever continue reaching out for new lives to claim, for new horrors to set in motion. From that terrible truth, Huston has made a chilling and beautiful work of art.


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