THE MARK OF THE ANGEL By Nancy Huston Steerforth Press 222 pp., $21
The shadowy region between innocence and guilt is the territory explored by Nancy Huston in her tautly written novel "The Mark of the Angel."
The Canadian-born Huston, who has lived in Paris since 1973, writes in both French and English. This is her first novel to be published in the United States.
The story begins in Paris, 1957, where, we're informed, "Life is great. Modern.... Cars are chrome-fitted, living rooms glow with the gray light of TV." But then again, "not everything is perfect. Here and there, even in France, there are signs that humanity still has a little progress to make. For instance, four hundred thousand young Frenchmen ... are currently in Algeria for the purpose of - oh, not a war or anything like that, simply, well, a kind of pacification process that is becoming a little sticky."
The narrative zeroes in on a 20-year-old German woman, Saffie, who has come to Paris looking for work. She finds employment as a housemaid for a young Frenchman, Raphael Lepage, who will become one of the world's great flutists. A sensitive, intelligent, and tactful young man, Raphael finds himself inexplicably attracted to this strange young woman: slender, plainly dressed, extremely devoted to housework, passive, taciturn, imperturbable.
After knowing her for only three weeks, he asks her to marry him. Suspecting that her lack of emotion may be the result of deep psychic wounds, Raphael is patient and gentle with her. On learning that his new wife is pregnant, he hopes that motherhood will bring her out of her shell.
But Saffie barely eats enough during pregnancy to nourish herself, let alone the baby, who, nonetheless, manages to make his premature way into the world.
What finally does bring Saffie out of her shell is a poor Hungarian Jewish instrument-maker, Andras, whom she meets when she goes to his shop to have one of her husband's flutes repaired. Before they know it, they've embarked on a love affair. Every week, she brings her little son in his stroller to the slum section to visit her lover.
This love triangle is fraught with political, ethical, and philosophical overtones. Saffie is able to unburden herself to Andras, telling him a heart-rending story of wartime deprivation and terror.
But Andras is dismayed by her "German" capacity for self-pity, her ability to cling to her own injuries in the face of the far greater suffering of the Jews of Europe.
Saffie, for her part, is shocked to learn that Andras is involved in helping local members of the Algerian National Liberation Front procure weapons for their struggle against French colonialism. Not only does Andras see the Algerian Arabs as fellow victims (with the Jews) of European racism, but he also supports them as communist revolutionaries.
Yet their relationship endures: "What each loves in the other," the narrator tells us, "is the enemy." It is hard to say whether their love is a dark passion rooted in hate or a way of transforming enmity into amity. Raphael, meanwhile, moves from strength to strength as a musician, even as his wife and child, unbeknownst to him, become less and less his, more and more Andras's. For Raphael, making music is a political act: although there will always be injustice in the world, he explains, "somehow ... happiness and beauty ... still have to be embodied in the here and now." Yet even this gentle, patient, well-intentioned artist does not manage to retain his innocence.
Without making the mistake of claiming that there is no distinction between guilt and innocence, Huston's novel suggests that both can exist in a single individual and be hard to disentangle. Her novel also pays tribute to the subjective truths of individual experience: No matter how lightly or heavily it might weigh on an objective scale, each person's suffering is real.
Although occasionally the narrative voice becomes heavy-handed and intrusive, for the most part, Huston employs it skillfully, as a means of standing back from the characters and enabling the reader to see the central point of the novel: the tragic clash of multiple histories, multiple worlds, that simultaneously inhabit a single planet, sparking off infinitely complex actions and reactions, the outcome of which no one can predict.
*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society