Novel of terror, or terrible novel?

The Kiss of Judas, by R. A. Scotti. New York: Donald I. Fine Inc. 334 pp. $16.95. It is the summer of 1978, and the Italian government is being slowly torn apart at the seams. Political instability had become as much a hallmark of postwar Italy as sleek sports cars and low-budget westerns. Since 1945, 37 governments had collapsed amid steadily worsening signs that Italy was fast becoming a house divided against itself, a nation enfeebled by factions, schisms, grudges, and seemingly endless political quarreling.

But the circumstances hastening the fall of the Andreotti government in '78 were far from ordinary. This time, it was not factional infighting and backstabbing among the major political parties that was threatening to bring down the government, but an enemy from without: a small number of bold and vicious terrorists schooled in revolutionary Marxism and armed with the most sophsticated weaponry of the modern-day freedom fighter.

In May of 1978, the body of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro was discovered in the trunk of a parked car in Rome. His murder, which outraged a nation increasingly inured to acts of terror committed in the name of some fanciful conception of social justice, offered disturbing proof of the growing power and audacity of Italy's home-grown terrorist movement.

In the tense months that followed the Moro assassination, sporadic outbreaks of violence lent added credence to the charge, voiced by a growing number of Italians, that their nation was being laid siege to by a well-trained army of commandos able to strike at will against a government too divided and inept to respond.

These chaotic weeks and months form the dramatic and chilling backdrop for R. A. Scotti's new novel, ``The Kiss of Judas.'' Deftly weaving the actual turbulent events of the time into a highly charged tale of intrigue and betrayal, Scotti is able to capture the confusing blur of violent acts and retributions in a virtual cinematic freeze-frame.

A small terrorist cell, led by a brooding young philosophy student, conceives of a plot so immense in scope and potential impact as to threaten the tottering foundations of Italian democracy.

Selecting a target more prominent and beloved than former Prime Minister Moro, the terrorist group directs its attention toward the large, walled compound near Rome's center, the palaces and cathedrals of the Vatican. Pope Paul VI, aging and infirm, becomes, in the malevolent deliberations of the terrorists, the ideal target for a kidnapping, and the group sets to work on an elaborate scheme designed to lead to the Pontiff's abduction, at gunpoint, on the road to the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo.

Relying on information supplied by a young revolutionary with close familial ties to the Pope, a perfidious cardinal, and an Italian police detective whose allegiance is divided between the limited goals of the terrorists and the global machinations of his paymasters in the Soviet KGB, the small cell prepares to spring its trap.

The momentum of those uncertain days in Italy clearly favored the terrorists. The government and the police were pointing accusing fingers at each other, and laying blame for the outbreak of terrorist violence more on the nation's political failings than the criminal and anarchic intent of those planting the bombs and firing the Kalashnikov rifles.

Belabored at first by doubts and the disapproval of his superiors, police inspector Guido Felice gradually unravels the complex skein of deceit and treachery that allowed the terrorist cell to come within striking distance of the Pope.

The kidnapping attempt is foiled. Justice -- even if it is in terms more familiar to a lynch mob than a court of law -- is served. And the widely divergent worlds of the papacy and the Italian polity, which share little but the city of Rome in common, are allowed to pursue their separate destinies.

Although ``The Kiss of Judas'' presents the geographic and historical details with compelling accuracy, these concessions to authenticity are too few and erratic to save the book from its own, all-too-apparent, fascination with its literary forefathers -- the books of Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, and other masters of the political suspense thriller.

It becomes ``genre bound,'' sticking to familiar contrivances and hackneyed characterizations. The cast of players is, almost without exception, as shallow and insubstantial as shadows: the scruffy, ill-kempt, and bumbling detective, the sybaritic and wealthy young female terrorist, the naive idealist torn between old loyalties and new ideologies, the boorish and ill-mannered KGB operative, the cowardly leftist professor who arouses his students to the acts of violence he is too timid to commit, as well as several burly, no-nonsense, Coke-swilling US G-men.

The dialogue ranges from the improbable -- one character stating, ``Underneath that expensive little dress . . . she has swathed herself in the rhetoric of the proletariat'' -- to the inadvertently comic: ``Champagne makes you churlish, my friend. Some fresh caviar might restore your good humor.''

There is a broader problem as well with a novel of this kind. In ``The Kiss of Judas,'' real events are too readily spliced with those of the author's imagination. Scotti's fictional terrorists become the real-life perpetrators of the Moro assassination, the confidants of the former leader of the Italian Communist Party -- the late Enrico Berlinguer -- and the negotiators for arms shipments with Yasser Arafat. By freely interchanging actual and fabricated events and characters, Scotti practices a dangerous subterfuge. A complex series of events in a foreign country are reduced to simplistic subplots in a 300-page potboiler.

Blurring the line between journalism and storytelling, a practice the publishing industry blithely calls ``the embroidering of facts,'' does a disservice to both professions.

The author alone knows when the chimerical is being substituted for the factual -- a selective reorganization of history which, in this instance, will likely leave readers more confused and uncertain about the events that took place during a particularly tragic phase in recent Italian history.

Still, as a work of fiction, ``The Kiss of Judas'' has enough clever twists and diversions to keep the book churning toward its explosive finale. Though his methods and originality may be subject to question, Scotti's technique is superb. ``The Kiss of Judas'' maneuvers with sufficient speed across the turbid waters of international espionage and terrorism to pull readers along in its wake.

Peter Fuhrman is a free-lance writer living in New York.

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