LITERARY FICTION

Talkative Man: A Novel of Malgudi, by R.K. Narayan. New York: Viking Penguin. 123 pp. $15.95. The imaginary small town in south India first put on the map in 1935 in the first of R.K. Narayan's novels of Malgudi is the setting of this latest addition to that charming group of books. The story is narrated by ``Talkative Man'' - or TM - a free-lance journalist with a keen interest in the comings and goings of village life. But Talkative Man seems a quiet fellow, compared with the mysterious, tale-spinning Dr. Rann, a self-styled international pundit, who talks his way into TM's home and into the heart of a naive local girl. Hot on the heels of the deceitful ``doctor'' comes the book's most formidable - and delightful - character: Rann's first wife, a commandant in the Home Guards, who tells her story with the preternatural compulsiveness of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. The humor is kindly, gentle, bright, and amusing at every turn and the novel a perfect length: long enough to extract the full potential of the plot and characters, but short enough that at no point do we feel the least suggestion of tedium or self-indulgence to mar our enjoyment. The Messiah of Stockholm, by Cynthia Ozick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 160 pp. $15.95.

Cynthia Ozick's fiction draws upon Judaism as a source of religious and moral authority rather than as a means of ethnic coloring. When she is at her best, the luminosity of her individual vision and talent sheds light over the past and into the present and future. But when the force of her sheer willpower becomes too closely identified with the force of tradition, more heat than light is generated. Her latest work has a smoldering intensity, but lacks the crystalline structure and brilliance of her previous novel, ``The Cannibal Galaxy.'' The protagonist, Lars Andemening, a book reviewer for a Stockholm newspaper, is obsessed with Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer murdered by the Nazis. Lars, an orphan, believes that he is Schulz's son. His dream is to find his father's lost manuscript, ``The Messiah.'' When a manuscript bearing that name turns up, Lars's determination to know the truth about its provenance leads him into increasingly dark waters. In what may or may not be a further irony, some of this darkness seems to be of his own creation. On this point, the tone of the book grows somewhat murky. But Ozick's energy and ardor carry the story, and she has raised intriguing questions in it about the struggle to recover an authentic past and about who has the authority to receive, carry on, and interpret tradition. The Sabre Squadron, by Simon Raven. New York: Beaufort Books. 240 pp. $15.95.

Disillusionment is a prevailing theme in all three of Simon Raven's ``Alms for Oblivion'' novels that have been published in the United States. The 10-novel series, which began appearing in England in the 1960s, is being issued by Beaufort, not in the slightly misleading order of the original publication dates, but in the chronological order of the postwar history that the novels chronicle.

Following ``Fielding Gray'' and ``Sound the Retreat,'' which were set just as World War II was ending and the British Empire beginning to be dismantled, ``The Sabre Squadron'' takes place in 1952, with cold war tensions already rising. A young, half-Jewish Cambridge mathematician, Daniel Mond, travels to Germany to try his hand at deciphering a complex system, which a leading German mathematician was working on at the time of his death. Around him, as complicated and disturbing as the papers on which he is working, a web of intrigue is being spun. Daniel's commitment to ``pure'' mathematics is brought up against the most brazen demands of power politics. His need for friendship brings him face to face with the extremes of betrayal - and loyalty. The world in which he finds himself seems to have less and less regard for the value of the individual human being. The volatile concatenation of people and events, of political and psychological forces, borders on the apocalyptic, yet Raven makes the bizarre twists of plot as convincing as Daniel's recognizably human responses. This is a remarkable blend of upper-middle-class characters from the realm of social comedy and a situation from the realm of spy novels and sci-fi.

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