Picks and Pans Review: Swallow

updated 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

by D.M. Thomas

"Like all improvisatori, including himself," Markov thinks, "she struck the Russian as an inhabitant of the borderlands between fact and fiction, uncertain where the boundary was." In this original, entertaining novel by the author of The White Hotel, a curious Olympics is held in Finland. The contestants are storytellers who improvise for hours before judges and a large audience. Some of these characters were in Thomas' novel Ararat, and stories begun there continue in this book. A swallow, the reader learns, is the nickname for a woman who seduces foreigners for the KGB, and many story fragments in this book are about deception, international and otherwise. There is a comic tale about a Russian poet who interviews a U.S. President named O'Reilly. The near-senile leader is 74, has red hair and was a movie actor. When asked if he watches his old movies, he says that "it's what my Presidency will be remembered for." There is a story about erratic affairs in Russia told in rhyming iambic pentameter. Throughout, Thomas makes his own kind of magic with the novel form, constantly breaking off the narrative, returning always to themes that most interest him: sex and obsession with the erotic imagination, art, plagiarism, the spirit worlds. He can be pretentious, but he can also be funny. Our most vital concerns, his stories suggest, are mere figments of our imagination, not really to be taken seriously. Swallow can be savored without having read Ararat, but together the two books blend into a vibrant dream in the mind. This is exotic, playful stuff, occasionally brilliant, always rewarding. (Viking, $16.95)

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