Darkness Visible

At some unnamed time and in some unidentified part of Central or Eastern Europe, all order has broken down. Armed bands in the guise of factional armies fight each other and prey indiscriminately upon towns and the countryside. Refugees clog the roads or shelter where they hope to find safety.

It is possible, even likely, that Iain Banks, author of "The Wasp Factory," has found inspiration for his novel in the ravagement of what used to be Yugoslavia. If so, though, it is only in the texture and physical details of terror and atrocity.

In fact, "A Song of Stone" is a parable whose moral and political context has little to do with the ethnic divisions of our day. Its violence originates as something akin to class warfare, a social uprising that deteriorates into formless chaos in the absence, or perhaps in the crumbling, of ideology. The marauder factions, recalling Europe's Dark Ages--and perhaps, in Banks' grim vision, foreshadowing its future--are killers and looters whose only law is the gun.

Banks writes with rich tactile detail and dark suspense, borne upon an undercurrent of revulsion. The revulsion issues from the corrupt voice of Abel, his narrator. It grips us insistently and too close; it breathes a perfumed rottenness in our face; it employs unabashed confession as an ultimate smoke screen. Banks uses this smoke to trace out his novel's theme: the perduring evil that underlies all history and histories.

At the start Abel, an aristocrat, is fleeing his castle with his mistress, Morgan, a few servants and a quantity of jewelry. The flight is a protective calculation: Though leaving the castle empty invites looting, it may avoid its destruction and perhaps its owner's as well.

Their wagon is halted on the refugee-jammed road when shots are fired ahead. Soon an armed detachment in tattered uniforms appears; its commander, a woman lieutenant, swings herself up and questions them. Ostensibly polite, she is a coiled spring of embattled wariness and greed. She "requests" Morgan's ruby ring and slips it on her finger; she insists that Abel turn around and take them to his castle.

First, though, she pauses to attend to one of her soldiers, mortally wounded and screaming. Pressing her lips lasciviously to his, she pulls her pistol and blows out his brains. It is a scene of stinging force. It sets the tone for Banks' allegory of history as Eros and Thanatos writhing in a knot, and it launches the tale with a propulsive energy.

"Loot," who uses the facelessness of nicknames for herself and her soldiers ("Karma," "Psycho" and the corpulent "Toolight"), takes swaggering possession of the castle. Abel, Morgan and their old butler (horrified at this social desecration) are treated with cold civility at first but are not permitted to leave.

"We are your willing guests, and you are ours--willing or not depends on you," Loot tells Abel. Bit by bit she tightens her conqueror's grip, disciplining Abel for such acts of defiance as shooting badly when he is conscripted for a hunting expedition and casting avid eyes upon Morgan. Seeking to break Abel's aloof sense of himself, she finally succeeds when he goes as guide on a sortie against a rival band. It is brilliantly successful, the enemy is massacred and its cannon is seized.

Abel finds himself swept into the bloody camaraderie, and it is at that point that Loot crushes him. She turns her soldiers loose in a drunken orgy that destroys everything in the castle; she meanwhile takes possession of a willing Morgan.

A treacherous Morgan, one might say, but the narrator, who speaks as if addressing her (invariably, creepily, as "my dear"), does not say it. History knows no treason; the strong prevail and rightly--so it seems, at least to this scion of a family that has prevailed through treacheries now lost in time.

Without losing hold of the story's vivid and increasingly horrific action (Loot's victory will not endure, and her fate is as grisly as those in prospect for Abel and Morgan), Banks has seeded it with a baleful vision.

If Loot is brutal, Abel represents an equivalent age-old brutality. Hers is the new violence; for centuries his family lived off the luxury of earlier violences and oppressions. Those centuries have rotted inside him; they speak through his arrogantly decadent voice and its account of a corrupt life.

He tells of a childhood witnessing fierce fights between a hysterical mother and an aristocratic, womanizing father. A recollected scene in which she hurls porcelain figurines at her husband, smashing them, prefigures the meticulously described destruction of the castle treasures by Loot's drunken soldiery.

He recalls Morgan, who lived with his family and seduced him when they were still children; not long after, his father would go off with her. Still later, as adults and living together, Abel and Morgan became notorious among their acquaintance--another prefiguring--for orgies of refined sexual perversion.

There is no new atrocity; it sprouts from perennial and undying roots. Abel could be Loot's forebear. He remembers walking in the woods as a child, falling into a muddy hole, struggling to get out and suddenly discovering a satisfaction in filth. Contemplating his ruined treasures, he is exhilarated. The reciprocal of the beauty created by artists and artisans is Abel's pleasure in its obliteration.

"Why should I not relish it and glory in the result?" he demands. "Who else should? Who else deserves to? Not these casual destroyers, these temporary occupiers." And continues: "Only I can justly and with due discrimination appreciate what has been destroyed here. And did these materials, this wealth of merchandise and art not owe me one last balance of enjoyment, one last cherishing, even if it was just the valedictory recognition of their lost worth?"

"A Song of Stone" is powerfully written and fiercely provocative. Banks, a Jeremiah of our Western civilization, refuses to spare the past, the present or the future. For this novel, incarnation is no miracle but a curse. The vision is bleak and narrow, but it is impressive.

At the same time, there is a defect in the protagonist and his narration. For one thing, to call him Abel, the biblical victim and innocent, is to force a large paradox into the facile constriction of an epithet. More seriously, his darkly vociferous knowingness does not so much tire as cease to provoke. Valuable as she was, Cassandra would not have done as the Iliad's central figure. Abel dazzles at the darkness, but after a while he no longer illuminates it.

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