German writer's novel of ambiguities

Dead Alive, by Eva Demski. Translated by Jan van Heurck. New York: Harper and Row. 293 pp. $19.95. The publication of ``Dead Alive'' in English translation allows English readers the rare opportunity to read the work of a young, award-winning German writer, who is just at the beginning of her international career.

Eva Demski's tale is told by a specific woman about a specific event (the death of her estranged husband) and set in a specific time and place - the Germany of the 1970s, a time when urban unrest gave rise to revolutionary and terrorist movements intent upon liberating the proletariat.

At the same time, however, this is a novel of ambiguity. Nothing is certain here - not the identity of the woman or her late husband, who are always referred to in simple terms like ``the wife'' or ``the husband''; not the love they shared or didn't share. Even the revolutionary ideals of the leftist with whom the husband and wife were involved are seen in contradictory terms, as both enlightened and naive.

In ``Dead Alive,'' Demski weaves her seam of uncertain certainties through the course of 12 days, the time between the husband's death and his funeral. Her voice is always that of the wife - a deliberate point of view that Demski maintains with great control and to good effect. The author allows the reader to develop an intimacy with the wife as she copes with the vagaries and finalities of death, and as she wanders through the landmarks of her husband's life in search of what it was that truly defines him and his ideals.

Within the novel's 12 days, Demski reconstructs the husband's life and the couple's life, together and apart, through a series of flashbacks. Through the wife's eyes, the reader examines the past, meeting the band of colorful and downtrodden characters championed by her anarchist lawyer-husband.

There is the fat, simpleminded prostitute Hedwig S., the bikers, the young boys her husband companioned with, the shadowy radicals of the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang, the young man who steals dying potted plants to nurse them back to health.

Through the wife's eyes also, the reader experiences the present. Demski writes with the convincingly wise and poignant awareness of one who has experienced a profound emotional and mental disorientation after the loss of a loved one. On that basis alone, this is a moving novel.

But Demski is also on to bigger issues here. She uses the palette of a personal tale to paint a much wider picture of the contradictory certainties and uncertainties of human affairs. Through subtle means, Demski allows contradictions of all sorts to emerge. The husband is an anarchist who believes in changing the system from within. The wife both loves and rejects her husband. The radicals preach a revolutionary dogma on behalf of the ``proletariat'' without really consulting society's abused or truly understanding their needs.

Dead and alive, in other words: both clear and unclear, resolved and yet unresolved. Life is too various, too big, for the solitary mind to encompass with radical ideology or anything else.

Although Demski's point may not be that original, she drives it home at the novel's close with a message that reverberates long after the reader closes the book.

As the wife leaves the cemetery to join somber waiting friends, she senses once again the presence of her dead husband. ``Is she ever going to be surprised!'' a faint voice says behind her. ``The fun is only just beginning.''

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