THERE IS A PLAGUE called man," reads the epi-
graph to Jakov Lind's second novel, Landscape in Concrete. The simple-minded protagonist of that bleak comedy, Korporal Bachmann (imagine the Good Soldier Svejk in negative), loves the Nazi Wehrmacht the way some people today love Pac-Man or Steven Spielberg movies -- with frightening intensity.
Judging by this, Lind's most recent work of fiction (and the first to be written in English), the plague has spread. The Third Reich has been replaced by a sort of world-wide "Fourth Reich," with Eastern and Western variants, and madness has become the universal norm. In painting this dismal picture of the current human condition, Lind has borrowed heavily from Jonathan Swift. But he has gone a step farther than his master in excoriating the human species: Travels to the Enu has Yahoos galore, but nowhere, nowhere, is there a Houyhnhnm in sight.
The plot, like that of Gulliver's Travels, is built around a sea journey, a shipwreck, a mysterious island and its even more mysterious inhabitants. Mr. Orlando, a London writer, unappreciated and therefore mildy bitter, signs up for a South Seas cruise on the S.S. Katherine Medici, a ship operated by Cosmic Ltd., "pioneers in social tourism." Once out of port, this little floating metaphor of the socialist experiment turns into a nightmare. Passengers are forced to serve the crew, possessions "disappear," and a few unfortunate souls are tried and executed for their most unsocial resistance. Through it all, Captain Gilbert Cook, convicted for gassing his entire family back in Jolly Old, exhorts the passengers to sacrifice everything for the good of the "entire community."
With a cruise like this, it seems like a positive stroke of good fortune when, late one night, the Medici enters "her final port of call, a permanent darkness eight thousand feet below the surface." The survivors -- our narrator Orlando and a few others -- are washed ashore and wake up the next morning to find themselves at the mercy of the Enu, the most outlandishly got-up crew of crazies to be found outside Andy Warhol's Factory: "Foreheads, cheeks, and necks were painted in flaming reds, greens, purples, and oranges" -- and that's just for starters. In addition to covering their bodies with charms and amulets and flaunting their grotesquely proportioned genitalia, the Enus stack their hair "in fuzzy, towering constructions, which at first glance looked like birds' nests and which, to my surprise, on closer examination, turned out to be used for that very purpose." In Enu-land, birds identify status: the grander one's bird, the higher one's station. The king -- King IT the 42nd, to be precise--sports a large royal buzzard.
It also turns out that the natives speak English, several varieties in fact (though Cockney is the dialect of choice), picked up, we learn, from an English couple stranded on the island some years before. Talk is high sport among the Enu, and the banter in the initial interrogation of the survivors provides the comic high point of the novel. "What you and I speak here I won't call 'English,' " IT explains to Orlando. "You are strange to me and I am a stranger to you. We speak. Let's say we speak 'strange,' and let's see who can speak stranger, you or I?" Lewis Carroll would recognize his spiritual son in the maker of these sentences, with their weird, yet undeniable sense. One of the survivors attempts to top his captors: "My name is Trevor Lunt. All English except for a bit of me which is not, but never mind. Good schools, best universities, excellent army service, fabulous teaching job. Professor of Secular Religion at Oxford; fellow of this, that, and the other; eternal student of human behavior . . ." For this inspired babble, Lunt is rewarded with a meal.
Lind's comic and satiric gifts are best deployed in the boat scenes and in these playful, oblique exchanges on the beach. By not trying so hard, by appearing to enjoy the strangeness of language itself, he says more than even he, perhaps, thinks he does. Unfortunately, Lind feels compelled to take on the Great Issues, and as the novel advances he abandons his strong suit in favor of a clunky symbolism. The Enu take their captives to the capital, G'NAAUU, a paradise of consumerism where few people work and all basic material needs are satisfied (POK, converted excrement, has taken care of the food problem once and for all). The trouble with paradise -- no surprise -- is boredom. The idle, unemployed masses covet the jobs of the few who have them, and the only way to keep the restless natives from going absolutely bonkers is to arrange an occasional war or coup. Sound familiar? All too familiar, all too easy, and, finally, all too dull. Burdened with tedious denunciations of the ills of the world, the novel labors to its conclusion.
One of the problems of this book, in addition to its polemical excess, is the character of Orlando. Characters in satire are traditionally thin creatures, attitudes on legs, roving preconceptions of how the world should be. The Gullivers and Candides of fiction are genial, trusting fellows who end up duly chastened by their experiences. But Orlando, in addition to being thin almost to the point of nonexistence, goes nowhere in his travels. He sets out disillusioned with the world and mankind, and he returns with his cynicism confirmed: a spiritual journey from A to A. And that might explain the dramatic slackness of this novel.
The question must be asked: Why did Lind bother to write this kind of book? He is a gifted storyteller (his Soul of Wood, a short-story collection, stands in my opinion as his best work to date) and an immensely interesting person. A Jew born in Vienna in 1927, he not only survived the Holocaust, he managed to work in the very heart of the beast, posing for a time as a simple (and properly Gentile) deckhand on a Rhine river barge. Unlike most other novelists who survived this horror, Lind (who now lives in London), has resisted writing thinly disguised novels about the experience. Indeed, in his actual autobiography, Counting My Steps, he makes relatively little of those years of danger and hardship; he seems, rather, to have enjoyed them -- as though they confirmed his childhood sense of the absurdity of human affairs.
But that is precisely Lind's weakness as a satirist: There is no suggestion of disillusionment. He expects only stupidity, pettiness and evil of man. Always an outsider (he even disliked his fellow Jews in Vienna), he appears to view the holocausts of our century as vindication of his darkest suspicions. No one can fault Lind for believing what he believes; but one can fault him for attempting satire, which needs, at the center of all its "savage indignation," some little naive faith that man could -- yes could -- be better.