Picks and Pans Review: Eve's Tattoo

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Emily Prager

That Emily Prager should write a novel with a strange, disturbing plot is not surprising: her collection of stories, A Visit from the Foot-binder, and her first novel, Clea and Zeus Divorce, have already shown the onetime Saturday Night Live writer to have an unusual imagination and a bleak, biting humor.

But this novel is particularly shocking. In it, a contemporary 40-year-old New York writer named Eve, who is not Jewish, becomes obsessed with a photo of a concentration-camp victim and decides to have that woman's Auschwitz number tattooed on her arm. The tattoo, she thinks, will honor the dead woman, whom she imagines was a Jewish victim of Hitler. Eve's lover Charlie—a Frenchman whom she believed was a Catholic—and most of her friends are shocked and worried that Eve is suffering some massive, bizarre midlife crisis.

On the surface, this novel is a series of scenes in which Eve imagines what the dead woman's life must have been like under the Third Reich. Eve clearly believes that "Eva," as she calls her, was an innocent victim of Hitler. But as the story unfolds, Eve makes some shocking discoveries about women in Nazi Germany. Because Eve is a political columnist for a men's magazine (note: Prager herself writes a monthly feature for Penthouse), she draws parallels with current events like the liberation of Germany (Eve is glued to the TV news during the destruction of the Berlin Wall) and the AIDS epidemic. Suddenly this simple, odd story becomes a parable about collaboration and resistance.

It works better that way too, because for all its insights—Prager constructs a viciously accurate scene in which several publishing honchos fight over the right to publish Eve's story, for example—the series of scenes never quite adds up to a full-fledged novel. Prager never explains enough about Eve's background for us to understand why she became so obsessed, and her relationship with Charlie seems similarly sketchy. It's too bad Eve is so superficial, when Prager's ruminations on polities and survivor guilt are so provocative. (Random House, $19)

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