A PROMINENT Israeli politician recently objected to a visitor's reference to the Arab-Israeli "problem." The word was profoundly misleading, he said, since semantic habit dictates that a problem posits a solution. He recommended "condition," a word implying a situation not to be solved but endured.

The 14-year-old civil strife in Northern Ireland pitting Catholic against Protestant, IRA terrorists against the British Army, and Protestant terrorists against Catholics suspected of sympathizing with the IRA--this complex and deep-rooted agony is another of the world's conditions. The phrase the Irish use to describe it, "the Troubles," downplays the communal calamity. Ireland has its Troubles just like my Uncle Dinny. "The Troubles" evokes an existential condition beyond politics and so beyond hope.

Political hopelessness hangs thick over Cal, a novel of love and guilt set against the backdrop of the Troubles. More, it seems to have infected the author, a well-regarded Scotch-Irish writer, with a lethargy of spirit. For despite many admirable touches, Cal lacks that energy of language, invention, or plot through which art transcends tragedy while depicting it. It suffers by comparison not only to the Troubles-inspired short stories of Benedict Kiely and William Trevor, but so to such nonfiction works as Anthony Bailey's Acts of Union: Reports on Ireland, 1973-1979, Jack Holland's Too Long a Sacrifice, Robert Kee's television history of Ireland, and Marcel Ophul's documentary film A Sense of Loss. All of these works are more moving and deeper in their social depictions than Cal.

The very terms of its story limit the novel's range of representation and meaning. Cal is a 19-year-old Catholic youth lured into a loose affiliation with "the Movement," the euphemism Mac Laverty uses for the Provisional IRA. A year before the novel opens, Cal sat behind the wheel of a getaway car while a Provo gunman shot an Ulster police reservist dead in the doorway of his home. The story begins with Cal glimpsing the reservist's widow in the town library and goes on to record his guilt-ridden, convincingly rendered, eventually reciprocated passion for her. Now if this woman, Marcella, were a Protestant, the love story could be a fine vehicle for exploring Ulster's sectarian psychology, the prime source of the hate and violence that have inflamed the province. But no, Marcella is a Catholic; not only that, she is of Italian descent! And instead of being a round character, equipped with an individual as well as social identity of credible thickness, she is a thin projection of that stock romance novel fantasy--the lonely widow hungry for a man's saving touch. Several British reviewers have praised Mac Laverty for throwing light on the Ulster condition, but they are embarrassingly wrong as regards the love story at the center of this novel. An affair between an Irish Catholic and an Irish-Italian Catholic reveals nothing of Ulster's dominant reality. If Mac Laverty skirts the Protestant/Catholic conflict by making Marcella Catholic, he also misses the chance to depict the terrorist mentality as love breaks the grip of hate upon it by making Cal a passive youth who is used by the terrorists, not the type of the hard cases who set off the bombs. And since he is essentially apolitical, the conflict within Cal is the familiar one of love against guilt, not the really interesting conflict of love against political fanaticism.

Still, the British reviewers are not altogether wrong. Mac Laverty captures the impotent fury of the Catholic minority toward the British soldiers who have been reinforcing the Ulster police for more than a decade now, and the Protestant majority, whose fear of someday finding themselves in a minority in a united Ireland wears the mask of a bristling bigotry. Mac Laverty also offers a chill portrait of an IRA intellectual, a fastidious Mephisto who bedaubs his threats to Cal with justifications of political murder: "In Cyprus the dead hardly ran to three fingers. That's cheap for freedom," and instructions to "Think of the issues, not the people." (Now if only he had been the one to fall in love with Marcella!)

Above all, Mac Laverty catches the sin-haunted consciousness of Catholic Ireland. Young Cal is possessed by distinctly Catholic fantasies of punishment for helping kill Marcella's husband. This is the deepest level of his character and perhaps of the Irish character as well. The Irish Catholic psyche, as those of us who have one know, cannot live with guilt but is driven to purge it in punishment. This comes, as Mac Laverty's religious imagery suggests, from the Irish absorption with the dark rhetoric and symbols of their faith--with sermons extolling martyrs to mutilate themselves for the love of God, for example, with the idea of inviting suffering in order to "offer it up," and with the Crucifixion as the abiding symbol of the human lot.

I have never seen the masochistic side of the Irish Catholic imagination so fully delineated. Yet Mac Laverty's objective, no-comment narrative leaves me in doubt as to how far he shares this world view himself. As I read I kept asking myself, does he recognize this punitive psychology for the human wrecker that it is? Does he see how near allied it is to the martyr-making methods of the Provos? I wanted Mac Laverty to show some Joycean wrath at all this. Instead, the novel ends with the police surrounding Cal and him looking forward to a cleansing beating.

Ulster has had enough of that. It needs forgiveness, not more punishment. As Hannah Arendt has importantly pointed put, forgiveness is a crucial political virtue in the ending of civil wars. It requires that the claims of justice be renounced by all sides so that the cycle of violence breeding violence will have a stop. If Mac Laverty had chosen to make Cal confess his crime to Marcella, then he would have had to face the question of forgiveness and so might have offered his countrymen a symbol of hope. This was to me his most disappointing failure. Since the Irish cannot forget the Christ crucified who haunts their tragic history, they badly need symbols to remind them of the God-man who urged his puissant father to "forgive them for they know not what they do," even as a Roman spear pierced his side