ON CLOWNS: The Dictator and the Artist, Essays by Norman Manea (Grove: $18.95; 178 pp.). As much as we admire dissident literature born behind the Iron Curtain, generally, book sales suggest, we don't like to read it. No doubt this is because of its tangled symbolism (we are used to speaking freely and directly) and its romantic hunger for Utopia (believing anything is possible, we prefer blueprints). In this sense, "On Clowns" is even less palatable than most, for it denies us the one satisfaction that some books by dissidents such as Vaclav Havel and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have provided: seeing our country presented as the light of freedom at the end of the totalitarian tunnel.

Stubbornly independent of mind, Norman Manea, a Romanian storyteller now living in New York, lashes out at America's "clowns" of the present (Dan Quayle reminds him "less of a telegenic Robert Redford than of a minor Stalinist Party secretary in a provincial town of the 1950s") and at those of the past, such as the FBI agents who compiled a 1900-page file on Charlie Chaplin "containing so many absurdities that no satirical cabaret could do them justice." "No matter how phantasmagoric its stagings often were," Manea cautions, "the totalitarian society from which I had come was not, as Western audiences prefer to believe, some sort of unearthly, demonic aberration, but a human reality that still persists and may indeed revive in other guises as an ideology and as a form of society."

Like the best of the Eastern European writers, Manea poignantly evokes the despair of living under totalitarianism ("You would gradually stop seeing your friends because . . . you didn't want to face the other's defeat--marked each time by new wrinkles--and recognize it as your own") and the joys of freedom. His memory of Romania's glasnost between '65 and '75 "has a tonic vibrancy: that allegro humming of sprightly Latinity, of wit and melodious decorum . . . it was as if, overnight, people and books had risen from the dead--congenial talk, glittering parties, melancholy strolls, ... all this had come back to life."

But in an ambivalence that reveals Manea's determination not to overlook politics' complexities, he is hesitant to embrace Populism as the clear alternative to totalitarianism. Admitting that Romania's glasnost "stimulated economic initiative only to a negligible degree," he questions democracy (referring to "the not-so-innocent oppressed masses") and even sympathetically presents the philosophy of Romanian writer Mircea Eliade that democracy has been unable to inspire in the people a spirit of fervent nationalism--"to make of them a strong, virile, optimistic nation, imbued with a sense of mission and destiny."

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