Page 7


politics or exile or both,” and because “there is an axiomatic connection between writing and pluralism,” Hitchens examines whether the presses and the poets are free under the Sandinista regime. Poet Antonio Cuadra was free to declare the 1979 “Triumph” a revolution betrayed, the rightist news organ La Prensa was in operation, and novelist Sergio Ramirez was serving as Ortega’s Vice President. The bulk of the story is literary and political conversation, mostly with Ramirez and Cuadra. Were there any wage slaves around? Yes, one wrote a bad poem to his novia: You and I are the Revolution and I am filled with my work and you spend hours and hours . . . in the Office of Propaganda. Hitchins records this but gives no indication that he talked to the man or, for that matter, more than glanced at him or anyone like him. Despite the reasonableness of the premise arts as touchstone of freedom and despite the superb “sense of place” Hitchens conveys, something is missing here. From a Marxist perspective, I’d guess, the truth of the man’s first line demands more than a professorial sniff. For my own curiosity, I’d like to have met him and heard what else he had to say, common though it might be. Downright Argument: I have an ingrained dislike for literary criticism that uses the social impact or political implications of a work, much less of its author, as a yardstick. I just wasn’t raised that way. Neruda’s is a magnificent work. His joining the Communist Party, presented as a choice between becoming the Cadillac owners’ darling or the voice of those whose backs became their streets and highways, seems unavoidable and it cost him outlawry and exile and excommunication. But I admire him for what to me is a more significant reason: My heart soars when I read him. Do I care whether he was properly doctrinaire? No. In contrast, Omar Cabezas’ Fire from the Mountain, the first half of his Sandinista war stories, arouses pity for the soul of a poet wearing the style of a garrulous bore, and terror that the second half will appear soon. The Mexican author who wrote the introductory puff, for the sake of Solidarity, hurt his protege: the contrast between wellcrafted expectations for the pudding and the actual mess on the plate blows the reader away; what was announced as dialectic comes across as inability to decide how to say something badly, and so on. Do the politics trouble me? No. Do I care whether George Orwell died with his socialism intact? Not inexpressibly, but I admire Orwell, and, by the time I’ve worked through Hitchens’s defense of Noam Chomsky, complicatedly tortuous as befits its subject, I admire him too, and am ready for another dozen pages of dense print on “Comrade Orwell.” Somewhere amid them the term “appreciation” occurs, so I read hopefully on. And find more incontrovertible proof that conservatives who’ve laid claim to Mr. Blair are just as wrong as socialists who’ve found him imperfect. No doubt as to which were men and which pigs; still, after gross capitalism drowns in its own greed or is murdered because of it, after the birds stop chirping in defense of their properties and the henyard pecking order evaporates, the elephant Orwell had to shoot will still crumple amazedly into the damn-near impossibility of finishing it finally off; and the reader will hurt with the writer, still, though the elephant no longer symbolizes Empire. Because Orwell wrote brilliantly. So does Hitchens. Buy the book. El Oswald’s Plot BY MICHAEL KING LIBRA By Don DeLillo New York: Viking, 1988 456 pages, $19.95 ALTHOUGH I HAVE never seen my country in quite the same light since the murder of John Kennedy, I confess I do not share what appears to be the continuing national obsession with his assassination. A couple of weeks ago, the Observer reviewed yet another conspiracy tome, this one arguing, plausibly enough, that the Mafia had a hand in the killing. Certainly the Mob was bitter over the “loss” of Cuba and the Kennedys’ antiracketeering campaigns. But there were also any number of other likely suspects, from bitter Cuban exiles to fanatical Birchites to anti-Papists to wealthy crackers who blamed Kennedy for desegregation. Take your pick; the daily trouble or the tri-fecta also carries reasonably good odds. On the other hand, Occam’s razor slices well enough to imagine, too, that to cut down the crown prince all it takes is a lunatic with a grudge and high-powered rifle. That is, of course, the official story, and Michael King writes about books and the arts from Houston. the available evidence suggests that while it took at least two gunmen to complete the job, at least one of them was Lee HarVey Oswald. Don DeLillo’s highly acclaimed novel, Libra, takes Oswald as a given, a sort of accidental node or vortex of history. Circumstances accumulate to shove him towards some violent gesture, and as a “libra,” sign of the scales, he becomes an unlikely balance to decide the fate of the nation. DeLillo uses much of the available evidence, particularly what is known about Oswald himself, as the matter of his novel, but he disclaims any attempt “to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination.” He admits that in the wake of innumerable and mostly unbearable books about the case, his may appear “one more gloom in a chronicle of unknowing.” But because [Libra] makes no claim to literal truth, because it is only itself, apart and complete, readers may find refuge here a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years. For readers who want the answer, this is not likely to be enough, and they should go back to the Zapruder film, secure in the illusion that they are seeing unmediated historical truth. But for the rest of us, it may be too much: does DeLillo want the advantages of historical material with none of its responsibilities? As it turns out, not really; Libra is in fact a “historical novel” in the best sense, one which ranges over the known record to re-imagine, from the inside out, not “what really happened” but what it really meant. DeLillo’s question is not “who killed Kennedy” but what does the Kennedy assassination tell us about Kennedy’s/Oswald’s world, and our own? Reader’s of DeLillo’s other novels, from End Zone to White Noise \(such tone-perfect hardly inviting but painfully recognizable. It is alienating and unforgiving, a dismal bureaucracy of the spirit, making Orwell’s Oceania seem almost homey by comparison. The earlier books are leavened somewhat by a dark humor, but there is little of that here. From the first moments when we meet the child Lee, in a cramped New York apartment with his widowed mother, bleakness is all. A poor student and a habitual truant, Lee takes his only pleasure in riding the subways alone: “It was a secret and a power. . . . Never again in his short life, never in the world, would he feel this inner power, rising to a shriek, this secret 10 JANUARY 6, 1989