Tyranny, complicity, betrayal

The Baltimore Sun

Blood Kin

Ceridwen Dovey

Viking / 186 pages / $23.95

The Talmudic tractate Pirke Avot, one of the West's great treasuries of practical ethics, enjoins its readers: "Love work, hate dominance over others and seek no intimacy with the ruling powers."

Ceridwen Dovey's taut and remarkably self-assured first novel, Blood Kin, reminds us that, while the sages' admonition was formulated in an era of universal despotism, its wisdom remains dew-fresh and urgently pertinent to our own time.

Dovey sets her allegory in an unnamed but somehow recognizable space. A country's despotic president has been overthrown, and the rebels have imprisoned him and his wife in their summer palace.

They also have arrested three of the deposed ruler's closest lackeys: his chef, his barber and his personal portrait painter. Each, in turn, provides first-person accounts of their service (collaboration?) with the fallen tyrant, then - as their accounts alternate one with the other - descriptions of their budding relationship with the rebel leader, who simply is called "the Commander."

The author gives each of these compromised servants an aphoristic summation of his situation. The painter, weak and frightened, is only too aware that he achieved his position because of his wealthy father-in-law's connection to the president. His whine is exculpatory: "If I am exempt from one thing as an artist, surely it is knowing what my government is doing?"

The chef is a much tougher character, a manipulative aging womanizer with every intention of prospering in the new regime. "We all know power and desire couple effortlessly," he muses.

The barber is himself a kind of failed conspirator who had come to the capital with the expressed purpose of getting close to the president, who had ordered the torture and execution of his brother, a failed revolutionary. His goal is assassination, but morning after morning, he puts his razor to the tyrant's throat and fails to act. "I am a coward," he admits, "and I wanted to live more than I desired vengeance."

As the story proceeds, Dovey braids these three perspectives together, then strengthens the narrative chord by introducing three first-person female voices: the artist's pregnant wife, the Commander's wife (who also was the fiancee of the barber's dead brother) and the chef's sado-masochistic daughter. Part of what makes this novel so formally impressive is the way in which the author holds each of these personalities in narrative tension while moving adroitly among them.

If there is a flaw in this fine first novel, it probably comes from the same thing that makes it doubly impressive: Dovey's youth. While her characters think individually, they speak in one elegantly controlled authorial voice. Six distinctive voices is a lot to ask of a writer under 30, and the book's lack of them makes Blood Kin a slightly richer intellectual experience than it is an emotional one.

It is, however, formidable on its own terms. Late 20th century English-language literature is rich in works of political implication that capture what might be called the aesthetics of betrayal. John Banville's masterful gloss on the life of the British traitor Anthony Blunt, The Untouchable, is one such novel that comes to mind.

Dovey has extended this genre in an important way by exploring the eros of complicity. Every tyrant's accomplice partakes of it, as every act of collaboration is simultaneously one of seduction and submission.

As Blood Kin builds to both a shattering revelation and a surprising - though hardly improbable - conclusion, a kind of implicit judgment that feels historically correct arises: Just as often as the revolution devours its own children, its progeny devour it.

Timothy Rutten writes for the Los Angeles Times.

EXCERPT

"If I know I have to go away somewhere for a while, I lay out the clothes I'm going to wear, take off the clothes I'm wearing, put them in the washing machine with my sheets and walk around naked until it's almost time to leave. That's why I was naked when they took me: ready for my trip, about to put on my clean traveling clothes, and next thing there was a man in my laundry pointing a gun at me."

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