Championing Enlightenment Values

Translations present contemporary European fiction's concern for truth and reason


By Alain Finkielkraut Translated from the French by Judith Friedlander Columbia University Press 165 pp., $32


By Milan Kundera. Translated from the French by Linda Asher HarperCollins. 156 pp., $21


By Gustaw Herling Translated from the Polish

by Ronald Strom


277 pp., $24.95


By Carl Friedman

Translated from the Dutch by Jeannette Ringold

Persea Books

176 pp., $20

Throughout this past century - and with renewed energy in recent years - the values of the Enlightenment have been attacked from many sides: by religious fundamentalists hostile to the claims of reason; ethnic chauvinists scornful of the claims of a common humanity; and moral relativists and deconstructionists skeptical about the Enlightenment goal of universal truth.

In The Defeat of the Mind, French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, who came of age in the 1960s and embraced many of the nostrums then current, urges a return to the Enlightenment values so recently dismissed as "Western," "male," and "elitist." He makes a lucid and persuasive argument that individuals of all cultural backgrounds will find more freedom and justice in a society that embraces Enlightenment ideals than in a society founded on ties of blood, race, religion, or so-called national culture.

Even as the writers of many European nations raise distinctive voices expressing and reflecting the accents of their particular "cultures," it is possible to sense a larger, more genuinely international culture in the process of developing. Czech-born Milan Kundera, who has lived in France for more than 20 years, has already penned two nonfiction books in French and now offers his first fictional work in French: Slowness, a lighthearted divertimento that pays tribute to the charms of Enlightenment France.

On a visit to an 18th-century chateau-turned-modern-conference-center, the narrator takes the opportunity to contrast the stately, measured pace of that bygone age with the current age's addiction to speed. "Slowness" juxtaposes the love story depicted in an 18th-century novella, Vivant Denon's "Point de'lendemain," with the affair of a lovely woman and an anxious intellectual too intent on impressing his peers to appreciate the relationship she offers him. The postmodern Romeo is more interested in the momentary, soon-to-be-forgotten prestige of being seen with a beautiful woman. Kundera further associates the speed of the modern age with its lack of privacy and its obsession with image and style over substance, memory, and reason. He makes his points with a touch of comic ribaldry.

One of the entries made by the Polish expatriate writer Gustaw Herling in his voluminous journals, a selection of which are published under the title Volcano and Miracle, is a rebuttal of an attack made by Kundera on Dostoevsky for elevating passion over the Enlightenment value of reason.

Kundera associates the cruel excesses of Soviet tyranny with the emotionally charged aura of a Dostoevsky novel. Herling, quite rightly, deems it unfair to blame Dostoevsky, who exposed the evils of nihilism, for the revolutionary crimes and purges he would obviously have deplored. Besides, for Herling, the greater cause of man's inhumanity to man lies in the soulless rationalism of ideology.

Herling fought in the Polish anti-Nazi resistance and served two years in a Soviet labor camp - a grueling experience he describes in his understated yet powerfully vivid "A World Apart" (Penguin). Living in exile after the war, he helped found the Polish expatriate magazine "Kultura," where entries from his "Journal Written at Night" have been published.

Since 1955, Herling has resided in Naples, not coincidentally the home of Mt. Vesuvius, the active volcano that features in these journals. Drawn from "The Journal Written at Night," the entries collected in "Volcano and Miracle" cover the years 1970 to 1994, a period that saw a devastating earthquake near Naples, the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the Red Brigade's kidnap and murder of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, and the transformations of glasnost and perestroika.

For Herling, the journal is a medium for gathering and assessing the raw materials of history and culture rather than a vehicle for self-revelation. His musings range over the centuries, a continuing collage of anecdote, reportage, and commentary. A story about the plague in 14th-century Europe provides a paradigm for the machinations of modern anti-Semitism. The character of a Machiavellian Renaissance prince yields insights about the sterility of power pursued for its own sake. Acts of modern-day terrorism are viewed in the context of Dostoevsky's and Conrad's prophetic warnings.

Dutch writer Carl Friedman's first novel, "Nightfather," was about the child of death-camp survivors. In her second novel, The Shovel and the Loom, she portrays a somewhat older heroine, also the child of Holocaust survivors, who stands poised on the brink of adulthood, puzzling out questions of belief and unbelief, identity and assimilation. Studying philosophy at the university, Chaya takes a job babysitting for an orthodox Hasidic family and is faced with the specter of continuing anti-Semitism.

While Chaya's father is determined to dig up his buried past, her mother seems equally determined to weave a web of forgetfulness over the horrors she's experienced. Chaya's own ambivalences are further heightened by her experience of the Hasidic family and her love for the three-year-old boy in her care. This is a poignant, deceptively simple novel that probes deep questions.

Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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