CRAWL SPACE

By Edie Meidav

Farrar Straus Giroux. 445 pp. $26

Fifty years after the end of World War II, 84-year-old Emile Poulquet is standing trial in Paris for his part in the Nazi deportation of thousands of Jews and others from his native Bistronne region in the French Pyrenees. Having escaped from Paris while on temporary release from prison, he recounts for us his return under the disguise of age and a certain amount of surgery to the town of his childhood and his crimes. He does so with little respect for the process that has finally picked him up and declared him a murderer for what he calls "satisfying the occupiers with numbers but retaining our France." He is, he says, "one more unjew jewed by history."

Such a fellow should not be good company for the substantial pilgrimage we undertake with him in Edie Meidav's troubling new novel, Crawl Space. But he is. He is quite a creation indeed, this aging anti-Quixote with his residual windmills to tilt at. For, like other men's, his destiny is not solely historic but created by personal issues as well -- a childhood facial deformation and a botched operation gave him his sneer of command, and both before and since childhood he has remained the emotional lackey of a woman named Arianne: "Arianne my cud, who tore my childhood's skin off and then danced over me."

He is returning now to their home town of Finier to present her with his last will and testament -- "all the names I have ever been called." This intention is rendered more complex and ambiguous by the fact that Arianne's late husband was the regional French Resistance leader, and she has organized a festival of remembrance. The unerected statue of her husband lies in a shed, under threat of a new generation of vandals. And the festival has brought to town survivors of Poulquet's deportations, including his now American childhood friend, Izzy Lisson.

Secretly observing the visitors, Poulquet is happy to see that they too are uneasy with the artificiality of formal remembrance, or else with its inadequacy. He understands (and so of course does the author) that remembrance and punishment can never match the terrifying anomie that characterized the mass crimes of such functionaries as he was. By comparison with it, normal human outrage seems small and cliched. Poulquet's contempt for his pursuers is based on this awareness of the contrast between his dispassion and their vulgar desire to punish him. It might have been tempting for a novelist to show Poulquet crumbling with guilt, self-accusation and awareness; the quality of his whimsical hauteur is not the least of Meidav's triumphs as a storyteller. "Now I am living in the era of experts about my era," he complains.

As true as it is that there were crimes, it is also true that only those who have been there fully understand their complexity. For example, Arianne's husband, the Resistance leader, at one stage of the war punished Vichy Prefect Poulquet for his deportation lists by stealing one and inserting the name of Poulquet's Jewish mistress and her mother. Poulquet found it impossible to save them from this sabotage and from the system's bureaucratic thoroughness. He also remembers he was not alone in his sins, recalling, from "before our true deportations began in the Bistronne, the plethora of folded letters which good citizens brought under cover of night and deposited in secrecy in my prefect's mailbox, speaking of this or that 'member of a spiritual community which has always been outside France.' "

By keeping to the shadows in his old town, pending his final meeting with Arianne, Poulquet mingles with a new generation of refugees, "the wastrels," homeless detritus of the New Europe, drifters from Paris and elsewhere. He finds himself a beneficiary of the company and tolerance of these "people sans-logements, sans-papiers, sans everything." Ironically, before the novel's end, such folk will be the subject of a new cleansing of the homeless and rootless. "We wish for the moment before shame began," a young woman tells a journalist, suggesting that there are only two ineffectual remedies tormenting all the characters in this tale: amnesia and remembrance.

In her energy as a writer, Meidav floats so many issues, throws so many balls in the air, that she runs the risk of anti-climax. Can the final meeting with Arianne, for example, carry the weight Poulquet puts on it as he travels toward it? Some novelists have the capacity, the narrative goodwill and the generosity to override and allay such readerly qualms. In this accomplished novel, Meidav shows herself to be one of that happy company. Given how long we wait to read Poulquet's will and testament, it's a relief when its content is both sufficiently enlightening and cunning that it succeeds as a device. *

Thomas Keneally is the author of "Schindler's List." His most recent book is "The Tyrant's Novel."