6 DECEMBER 1997, Page 54

Disney or Euripides?

James Simmons

THE ZIG ZAG KID by David Grossman Bloomsbury, £14.99, pp. 309 David Grossman is an Israeli writer whose past work has been much admired in translation in Europe. This is a very good translation. Apparently he often presents life through a child's eyes, and here we are thrust into the far-fetched adventures of a child who has been put on a train a few days before his bar mitzvah. Adventures don't interest me, and I would not have read on had the novel not been recom- mended; but quite early on the child's wor- ries about his father anchor the story in human interest, his cold, confused, but much loved father, a detective who is bringing his son up as a possible fellow worker in the fight against crime. His beautiful mother has died young, is not spoken about, and the detective's efficient secretary, a lovely person but not beautiful and very fat, has become housekeeper, hoping to be stepmother. The flashbacks that tell us this part of the story are full of interesting and surprising detail.

The question is whether this is a really interesting story, or does the author ginger it up by having a conman grand- father suddenly appear to lead the child through a series of adventures which grad- ually reveal the story of the lost mother to the child? I am not sure of the answer. I certainly couldn't put the book down. Despite my irritation with the cliched adventures I got interested in the complex mind of the author, who was showing that this child, faithful son and delinquent was torn between excitement and duty. The parable was not diagrammatic and it was full of life and interesting characters, but I couldn't help being reminded of the Walt Disney version of Hercules, which is very attractive and full of energy and even made me cry; but I had The Women of Trachis in my head, in the Pound translation, and I yearned for the real resonance.

Grossman's novel is his own version of The Bacchae, law and order versus excite- ment; but he explores it more on the level of glamour versus the quotidian, which is better done in the good OK Corral movies or in Bonnie and Clyde. He doesn't serious- ly dramatise what it might be to be a good detective or a master thief or a beautiful girl who wants to die young. These dream figures float above a wonderfully realised world of an unhappy famous actress and a passionately confused child and his love for a fat, intelligent woman who is allowed to make them all happy in the end.

I must say how much I enjoyed this novel. The author is wise and subtle and great fun, but the plot creaks and some of the characters are cardboard.