Redemption not for sale

An entomologist struggles to put away his guilt from World War II

The Deadwood Beetle," by Mylène Dressler, is a haunting, demanding story about an old man clinging to strands of stale guilt. Its appeal is limited, but its execution is perfect. The novel focuses on the self-conscious remorse of Dr. Tristan Martens, a retired professor of entomology. In failing health and alienated from his family, Tristan burrows into his apartment, where he can live like the hard-shelled beetles that have been his life's work.

One day while walking home from the grocery store, he notices a sewing table in an antique store. With an extraordinary effort, he asks the shop owner about the table without betraying how disturbed he is to see "this ghost, this small, lost thing, floating like a piece of impossible wreckage toward me."

The owner, an elegant, equally restrained woman named Cora, tells him that the table belonged to her husband's aunt, who was a Jew in hiding during World War II. Tristan watches in repressed horror as she tilts the table to read an inscription carved by a child's hand in Dutch: "When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones."

"How ... horrible," Tristan says, but Cora reads the line entirely differently. "I find it's almost beautiful," she says. "Like Niemöller. 'They came for the Jews, but I wasn't a Jew, so I didn't speak up. Then they came for the Catholics, but I was a Protestant, so I didn't speak up. Then they came for me - and by that time no one was left to speak up.' Clear and honest. A child's warning."

Tristan knows better. This was his mother's sewing table. He carved those words on it when he was a child in Holland. The idea of it sitting in this store transformed into an embodiment of sympathetic solidarity is a misrepresentation that horrifies him.

He determines to ingratiate himself to Cora and get the table from her, engaging in one act of misrepresentation to abolish another. As their friendship develops, however, he discovers that she has responsibilities to the past, too, and his moral challenge resists any easy solution.

Dressler is a writer of chilling compression and suspense. Moving between Tristan's courtship of Cora and his childhood in occupied Holland, she parses his motives with relentless precision. "Slight matters," she writes. "Slight alters. Evolution is built on hairsplitting." She's referring to beetle classification, but like so many elements of this careful book, she's implicitly commenting on Tristan's conscience.

The explanation for his obsession with the table and the meaning of its inscription is daringly delayed, allowing the nature of his guilt to grow ever more complex and tragic. Almost anything a reviewer might say about the plot would spoil this compelling mystery. What can be said, though, is that Dressler has written a beautiful, sensitive story about the struggles of the heart to beat toward redemption under the weight of its own remorse.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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