Issue of betrayal eclipses all others


ECLIPSE FEVER. Walter Abish. Knopf.

326 pages. $23. Aristotle said that the decline of a great man was the most suitable subject for tragedy. Alejandro, the protagonist of "Eclipse Fever," is not a great man, but he is a highly respected literary critic living in his native Mexico. It is Alejandro's corruption that stands at the center of Walter Abish's third novel, whose last book, the 1980 novel "How German Is It," won the PEN/Faulkner Award.

The scene is this: Alejandro is a critic who is beginning to repeat himself. He is living off his reputation and some of the money of his rich wife, Mercedes. She is a translator who is off to the United States to teach a summer session at a New England college and to hook up with Jurud (an American novelist whose novels Mercedes has translated). Predictably, Mercedes begins having an affair with Jurud, so Jurud's daughter, Bonny, heads ++ south. Bonny is an innocent who suffers because she is unable to handle the evil she encounters.

At the root of this evil is money -- Preston Hollier's money. Mr. Hollier is an American industrialist who has all the money he'll ever want. His present amusement is to collect pre-Columbian artifacts. The only problem with this hobby is that the trade in pre-Columbian art is highly restricted. Any collector in a hurry to establish a collection has to have other "sources."

Hollier's main source is a man named Pech, a middleman for thieves who raid historical sites and steal from public museums to obtain the precious art objects.

The action brings Bonny to the town of Megalen on the Yucatan Peninsula to view an eclipse (a rare, natural "artifact" not to be missed). But the eclipse cannot be viewed from the Yucatan, so Bonny must content herself with watching it on television. At the same time, Preston Hollier brings Alejandro with him to Megalen to buy a stolen codex. The combination has murderous consequences that change the lives of Bonny and Alejandro.

The themes behind the action are the most attractive part of this book. First, it should be remembered that all this fuss is over pre-Columbian art. This heightens the cultural ambiguity existing Mexico between Spanish and pre-Spanish roots.

Second is the theme of betrayal, of which there is an abundance HTC this book. There is the betrayal of the integrity of Mexico's art treasures to Preston Hollier and others like him. They steal what is most valuable. Through the power of money, they induce others to sell their very identity. This image is exaggerated almost to the grotesque when Hollier declares that his Eden Corporation (Eden, remember, is where corruption began) intends to make Aztec ruins into a theme park and put elevators into the pyramids so tourists won't have to climb the steps.

Betrayal is also visited upon Alejandro when his wife leaves him to have her affair with Jurud. This act is linked in the critic's mind with the historical betrayal of Mexico to the Spaniards: "In Mexico, where betrayal is so well understood, every man has grown up with the dread as well as the anticipation of it. Because La Malinche, who slept with Cortes and bore him a child, betrayed every one of her countrymen, modern Mexico began with an act of betrayal." In the end, Alejandro commits his own act of betrayal. It is his ultimate corruption.

The issues are important; they dominate the book. In fact, the main criticism I would make of "Eclipse Fever" is the distance between the reader and the characters. Like the artifacts they study, their lives do not authentically engage. This is too bad and makes the plot wooden at times. However, the intellectual paradigm that Mr. Abish constructs more than makes up for this. "Eclipse Fever" is a book that deserves to be read.

Dr. Boylan is a philosopher and poet who lives in the Washington area. His latest book, "Perspectives in Philosophy," was published in January.

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