Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson
Passion is the subject of The Passion, from the nationalistic passion that leads young Henri to join Napoleon's army, to Napoleon's passion for chicken dishes that results in Henri's army job slaughtering chickens, to the passion of the Venetian boatman's daughter Villanelle for a married woman which, through a highly circuitous route, leads her to become a camp follower in the same army.
The novel woos readers with scenes of vivid strangeness painted in quick, bright brushstrokes: Napoleon "wishes his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird." Henri remembers his farmer father "with two sacks ... full of blind moles, their whiskers still rough with dirt." Villanelle roams Venice on a festival night among "fire-eaters frothing at the mouth with yellow tongues" and midnight fireworks that break "the sky above St. Mark's ... into a million coloured pieces."
Amid the startling mosaic of story, the narrators drop insights about the vagaries of love: "Somewhere between fear and sex passion is," Villanelle tells us, and "Passion is not so much an emotion as a destiny." About soldiering, Henri says, "We began to believe that we were fighting this war so that we could go home.... Now that our hearts were gone there was no reliable organ to stem the steady tide of sentiment that stuck to our bayonets and fed our damp fires."
Truth can be bittersweet, as this novel is, and passion does not always, or perhaps even often, lead to happiness. Instead of immersing the reader in the characters' passions, this novel dissects them and lays them out - bare, odd, familiar - to be recognized and reflected upon. (1987; 160 pages)More about The Passion at Powell's Books or Amazon.com