Distant worlds with historical twists

"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

Thus begins a much-admired 20th century English novel, L.P. Hartley's "The Go-Between." And as its twisted tale of secret love and other concealed emotions gradually unfolds, we experience that amalgam of discovery and recognition felt whenever one travels to unfamiliar places, whether in reality or in eye-opening novels that come from anywhere and everywhere.

Such revelations await readers who enter the distant worlds explored in four new works of fiction from other countries and cultures. Each is a kind of historical novel, a concerted attempt to unearth, witness and judge the past in its conflicted relationship with what came later.

Published in 1949 and now available in English translation, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's "A Mind At Peace" is widely considered a masterpiece of Turkish literature.

The conflict between ancient and modern societies is central to this discursive narrative set in 1939. At this pivotal time, the legacy of the recently defunct Ottoman Empire and the stringent mores of Islam are being threatened by the brewing world war and the impingement of Western social and economic values. Tanpinar explores that conflict through the experiences of his protagonist, Mumtaz. An Istanbul intellectual, he was orphaned in childhood and raised by relatives whose reverence for Turkey's rich cultural past shapes his life. It also complicates his relationship with an older woman, Nuran, a divorced mother whose life is lived on pragmatic quotidian terms far removed from his.

There is genuine emotion and drama in Mumtaz's effort to understand and absorb the past and function in the present. A reflective novel with little action and frequent references to Turkish history and culture, this novel's pristine remoteness will be tough sledding for some.

Another demanding but rewarding work is H.G. Adler's celebrated Holocaust novel, "The Journey." Adler (1910-88) was a Czechoslovakian inmate of a Nazi labor camp whose family was wiped out during the war. That experience inspired a lifetime of thinking and writing about the catastrophe sometimes deemed unthinkable and indeed beyond describing.

"The Journey" is a powerful chronicle of persecution and atrocity (first published in German in 1962) that begins with a single voice -- that Paul Lustig, the sole survivor of a destroyed family. But soon the novel expands into a polyphonic arrangement of involved voices: those of Paul's parents, maternal aunt, and sister; friends and neighbors similarly victimized; soldiers and superior officers who operate the machinery of genocide; and the architects of such horrors, who contemplate them from a safe distance.

This fragmented rhetoric replicates the chaos experienced by the Third Reich's victims to stunning effect -- though Adler never mentions Germany, concentration camps, Nazis or Jews.

Often flatly declarative -- its characters appear neither to live or die credibly, -- the novel's final effect seems more poetic than dramatic. It has the formal clarity of something very like a classical Pindaric ode, and its beauty and power radiate unquestionable authority.

On a far different note, "Brothers" is bawdy picaresque misadventure concocted by China's best-selling maverick author Yu Hua. It's the story of siblings Li Guan (aka "Baldy Li"), a randy voyeur whose creepy obsession with female bodies carries him to great wealth and notoriety, and Song Gang, a principled introvert whose integrity wins the local beauty (Lin Hong) whom both brothers adore and covet.

The setting for their contention is China in the 1990s, in the wake of Mao's Cultural Revolution and during the enthronement of Western capitalism. Baldy Li's deranged entrepreneurial ingenuity (of which a beauty pageant for "certified" virgins is only one gloriously tasteless example) incarnates the post-Mao passion for novelty and spectacle that reached a garish zenith in the resplendent recent Beijing Olympics. Fusing naturalism with wretched excess, Yu Hua takes us on a wild ride that encompasses the lascivious to the delicate elegance of formally patterned gardens and tea ceremonies.

The mixed curses of unrepentant capitalism are the targets of often oppressive satire in "New Lives," an imposing first novel from Germany's reigning wuenderkind Ingo Schulze. After writing two critically acclaimed story collections, he gives us an expansive portrayal of East Germany in 1990 in the self-obsessed writings of Enrico Tuermer, a theater dramaturge and would-be novelist turned entrepreneur in a show-me-the-money new world in which art has become devalued and personal gain is all.

The bulk of this sternly accusatory (often very funny) novel consists of wheedling, self-justifying letters ("edited" for publication by Ingo Schulze) written to Tuermer's sister, Vera, his lifelong friend (and intellectual soulmate) Johan, and the woman (Nicoletta) whom he loves but fails to acquire. They chart his "progress" toward solvency and respectability, first as editor of a crusading newspaper reconfigured into an advertising rag, then as an increasingly successful and influential entrepeneur.

Tuermer is Germany reinventing itself as walls of custom and precedent tumble and the exigencies of getting and spending become the real "culture."

The influence of Nobel-anointed eminence Thomas Mann is felt throughout this impressive but baggy narrative that seldom fails to entice and amuse. Tuermer's servile relationship with an aristocratic business consultant (Baron von Barrista), whom Saul Bellow might have dreamed up is especially entertaining.

The book feels airless, as if held captive by its implication that art's surrender to commerce is the real German Tragedy. Those who lived through earlier years and harder times, or only know about such from reading history and fiction, know better.