A Corrupt Island By Any Other Name

BRIAN MOORE'S latest novel, ``No Other Life,'' is set in the fictional country of ``Ganae,'' a poor, corrupt, predominantly black, French-speaking Caribbean island nation that bears an anything but accidental resemblance to Haiti.

Ganae's history, evoked with the concision and power that are a hallmark of Moore's prose, reads like a never-ending story of human misery: the overthrow of an oppressive colonial government, succeeded by continuing despotism, with power passing first to a wealthy mulatto elite, later to a black-skinned demagogue, Doumergue, who promised reform but perpetuated the tradition of tyranny.

Ganae's great hope is a charismatic politician-priest named Jeannot, a slightly built, soft-spoken man with a passionately devoted following among the poor. He is elected president in his country's first internationally supervised, honestly run election in years. But when it becomes clear to the powers that be (the army, the drug lords, the former elite) that he is serious about changing the country, his troubles begin.

The stage seems set for a morality play. Will this be about the ways a good man can be corrupted by power? Is Jeannot really a good man, and if he is, can he remain so in the face of the forces ranged against him and the temptation to use violence to fight violence?

Few contemporary novelists are as capable as Moore at unraveling the intricacies of moral and political dilemmas in a way that clarifies - indeed, crystalizes - their complexities without oversimplifying. Author of nearly 20 books, the Belfast-born writer emigrated to Canada in 1948, where he began his career with ``The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne'' (1955) and ``The Luck of Ginger Coffey'' (1960). His novel, ``Lies of Silence'' (1991), was a suspenseful, starkly illuminating portrait of the ``troubles'' in his native Northern Ireland.

Moore's deceptively simple, straightforward style of storytelling is coupled with a sophisticated comprehension of the conflicts between moral imperatives and political necessities.

``No Other Life'' is narrated by Father Paul Michel, a Roman Catholic priest from Canada who has spent most of his adult life in Ganae, where he has become principal of the College St. Jean. It is Father Paul who discovers the precocious young Jeannot, who not only becomes a star pupil, but also becomes a priest himself. Black student and white mentor become trusted friends.

When his former prot is catapulted into national prominence - first as a spellbinding liberation theologian working among the poor, then as the newly elected president - Father Paul becomes his loyal defender and (in a reversal of their former roles) faithful acolyte.

He runs interference for him in secret conferences with Vatican authorities, assuring them of Jeannot's religious commitment while struggling with his own private doubts as to where the young man's fiery oratory may be leading his worshipful, volatile supporters. The story that unfolds is presented with an economy that doesn't sacrifice subtlety to suspense. Each tautly written scene adds yet another layer of significance, as the two main characters confront a series of hard choices.

Compellingly believable, but never merely cynical or predictable, ``No Other Life'' is a political thriller as pellucid as a parable, yet with all the texture and heft one might expect from a longer work. It is an acute and illuminating exploration of the difficulties of achieving justice in an unjust society without compromising one's ideals.

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